All good things must come to an end—like Franco Harris’ tenure with the Steelers, Michael Jordan’s second retirement, Forrest Whitaker’s stint on the “The Shield” and watching “Gilmore Girls” every Tuesday night with The Wife (did I really just put that in writing?). On Monday, it appears that we will have to add Greg Maddux’s professional baseball career to that list (it is hard not to root for a player that looks to be in only marginally better shape than me). When analyzing all the starting pitchers that began their careers since I was born, there are four that really defined pitching excellence for that time period: Roger Clemens (and his pharmacists), Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and Greg Maddux (if you add Mariano Rivera, you would have the five best pitchers during that era). Each of those four have posted incredible career and season numbers; however, it was really only when Clemens, Big Unit or Pedro pitched that one sensed, or even expected, that something special was going to happen. Greg Maddux, on the other hand, was not sexy (ok, maybe the thin mustache, a la Steve Buscemi in “Fargo,” that he was sporting on his ’87 Donruss rookie card was impressive, but that’s really about it).
In 1986, I was a huge Dwight Gooden fan (talk about a Palin-esque career trajectory) when Clemens burst on the scene racking up 20 Ks in a single game (he would actually do it again in 1996 (as would the Big Unit in 2001)). His 16 strikeout performance in his first game back to Fenway as an opposing pitcher and the 15-K, 1-hit masterpiece against the Mariners in the 2000 ALCS certainly added to his legend. I also remember when Clemens beaned Piazza in the head in 2000 and then threw the broken bat back at Piazza in that season’s Subway Series.
When I think of specific Randy Johnson performances, I will always remember when he scared the life out of Kruk in the 1993 All-Star Game; his three-hit, 12-K gem in the one-game playoff against the Angels after the 1995 season (and his relief appearance on one day’s rest to claim the win in the ALDS against the Yankees that same year); and his incredible performances, especially his winning relief appearance in Game 7 on no rest, against the Yankees in the 2001 World Series, which was the most meaningful World Series ever as the country sought normalcy after 9/11 (no matter what one thinks of W, his first pitch strike to open Game 3 in NYC, as NYC, the country and the world watched, was one of the greatest clutch performances ever). I will also remember when Johnson accidentally nailed a poor dove with a fastball in a spring training game and his inauspicious introduction to the New York media (“Don’t get in my face and don’t talk back to me, alright.”).
With Pedro, who can ever forget when he struck out Barry Larkin, Larry Walker, Sosa and McGwire to start the 1999 All-Star Game (he also rang up Bagwell); entered the fifth and final game of the 1999 ALDS after the third inning with the score tied 8-8 and nursing a strained back that knocked him out of Game 1 and pitching six-innings of no-hit ball or when he threw Zim to the ground like a sack of really old potatoes in the 2003 ALCS.
I must admit that indelible Maddux moments do not come so easily. There is one game, however, that I recall, which I think represents Maddux’s career quite well: his July 22, 1997, complete game, 1-run win over the Cubs in which he issued no walks and threw only 76 pitches(!). No gaudy strikeout totals, no bench-clearing brawls and no pitches thrown with triple digit velocity; just an incredibly efficient and controlled game by the most cerebral pitcher of our time. Not sexy, just good.