Monday, December 8, 2008

Officially Official, Part 2

Greg Maddux retired today, making official what agent Scot Boras announced a few days ago. This is the second time in five years I’ve had to write a sad, sad Maddux-related song.

It was roughly this time five years ago that the Braves declined to offer Maddux salary arbitration, ending his decade-long tenure with Atlanta. At the time, I didn’t know what hurt more: the fact that the Braves waved goodbye to my favorite player, that it was the right thing to do (Maddux’s stats were slipping while his age kept creeping upward) or the fact that so few Braves fans seemed to care all that much. When Tom Glavine left in 2002 there was an uproar, and Maddux was always a better pitcher than Glavine.

I suppose I should have been happy that most fans were looking at this fairly objectively and not succumbing to the emotion of the moment. And yet it’s more than a little discouraging that Greg Maddux could pitch brilliantly in Atlanta for a decade and not inspire any kind of fanatical devotion. In fact, Maddux never seemed to inspire any great degree of loyalty from the masses of fans. I suppose it’s because of the way Maddux pitched; even in his truly dominant days he never LOOKED truly dominant. To ask a fan to remember Maddux’s greatness is to ask them to remember events that never happened: remember the home runs he never gave up because he was so good at keeping the ball down, remember the walks he never issued because he had such exquisite command of everything he threw, remember the pitches he never had to throw because he was so efficient.

In a bizarre kind of way, even his respectable strikeout numbers worked against him. Maddux struck out 6.05 batters per nine innings and pitched long enough to rack up more strikeouts than all but 10 pitchers in the history of Major League Baseball. He certainly would have earned more gasps had he struck out a greater number, but I think he would have been a greater curiosity if he had success without striking anyone out. Extremes are interesting. They grab our attention and our memories and they don’t let go. A fireballing strikeout artist? Fascinating. A soft-tosser who couldn’t strike out a Little Leaguer? Fascinating. But Maddux never pitched to the poles. He occupied his own, dominant center, striking out five or six and inducing a collection of yawn-inducing groundballs.

It’s more than just that, of course. There was the whole Javy Lopez issue, which seems to have angered a large segment of the Braves’ fanbase enough that Maddux has been truly tainted in their eyes. One would think that if the price of watching one of the greatest pitchers of all-time practice his craft for a decade was having to watch Paul Bako try to hit every fifth day, it would be an easy bill to pay. Evidently not. And it’s not like Maddux is the first Hall of Famer to have a personal catcher. Steve Carlton’s insistence on throwing to his own catcher unleashed Tim McCarver on an unsuspecting public. Men have been convicted of crimes against humanity for less than that.

“Experts” will bring up Maddux’s postseason won/loss record. Constantly. And they will use that laughably flawed statistic in a pathetic attempt to prove that somehow Maddux choked in clutch situations or that he simply isn’t cut out to pitch in the postseason, as if it’s Maddux’s fault that the Braves couldn’t touch Mark Prior or Orlando Hernandez.

And so we had this most bizarre of situations: one of the greatest pitcher’s of all-time is about to leave and most fans seem happy about it. Hardly any mourned the loss; just a few dorky kids who thought they saw in Maddux the slightest glimmer of themselves.

For them- ok, for us -Maddux was a great pitcher, yes. But he was more than that. He was the personification of the idea that greatness doesn’t have a preferred aesthetic; it could be short and near-sighted and more than a little overweight. He was a constant reminder that brilliance didn’t need to always roar and shout at the top of its lungs in a perpetual attention grab; it could be quiet and understated and yet still be as fiercely dedicated as any of the screamers.

Maddux was the pitcher for those of us who were cursed to love a game we could not play, the talent deprived multitude who watch with as much passion as anyone else.

That’s ridiculous of course and is brutally unfair to Maddux. He’s more talented than 99% of the human beings on the face of the Earth, and has a stronger arm than any of us could ever dream of.

And yet that feeling is still there when we watch Maddux slice through an inning in 8 pitches and then see Jorge Julio’s 97 MPH fastballs end up in the left field seats. It was terribly inspiring.

I can’t exactly say that Maddux has been overlooked by the national media. He won four Cy Youngs and 18 Gold Gloves and made eight All Star games. He’ll win election to the Hall of Fame with an overwhelming majority. So it’s not like he’s gone under-the-radar.

But the acknowledgments of Maddux’s brilliance always seemed perfunctory, as if the sheer of force of his brilliance forced the pundits’ hands. They’d give their praise, shake their heads at his body of work and then move on to a more explosive personality, a more interesting character; Clemens or Pedro or any of a dozen others.

That makes this day a sad one, but also a satisfying one, because it’s his day and no one else’s. The cameras are on Maddux. He’s the topic of conversation. It’s not what he has ever wanted, but it’s certainly what he deserves.

1 comment:

Tanto said...

Good stuff. (I especially liked the shot against Jorge Julio. A little part of me died when the Braves signed that guy.)

I feel privileged to have been able to watch Maddux work his magic for ten years, but more so I feel proud that I was able to root for him without any reservations. I can admit the greatness of Pedro or Unit, but Maddux is my guy, and I'll always love him for that.

Best Braves pitcher of all time. If not for that Aaron guy, he'd have an argument for best Brave ever.