Greg Maddux sits on a stool, a royal-blue sneaker wedged in his lap, snipping his shoelaces. He pulls one end taut, eyeballs it and with a pair of surgical scissors clips off three inches, then tightly knots the new end. "Gotta fix 'em up" he says. "Don't want to be tripping on your laces." He works while he speaks, lace ends of identical length piling at his feet as he describes his partners in the Chicago Cubs' starting rotation. "They throw hard, and I don't. They throw pretty good sliders and curves, and I don't." He looks up from his sneaker and smirks. "I throw changeups."
Maddux relishes self-deprecation. Saying that he throws changeups is like saying Coltrane blew horns or Flaubert scribbled a little. Maddux has thrown tens of thousands of dawdling changes and as many diving fastballs. Delivered with the same ease and precision he devotes to a mundane springtime chore, his pitches have hit enough spots to give him 289 wins in an 18-year career. In the Cubs' spring training clubhouse at Fitch Park in Mesa, Ariz., cutting laces a shade of blue lighter than those issued to him for more than a decade by the Atlanta Braves, Maddux is anomalous. He is, in fact, the lone soft tosser in a rotation filled with fireballers. Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, Matt Clement and Carlos Zambrano hit 95 passing the saltshaker at lunch. Also, Maddux is 37, eight years older than Clement, the eldest of the Cubs' twentysomething holdovers, and though he continues to crank out 15 or more wins every year, Maddux is the only one of the five starters who has already passed his peak. All this may explain why, since signing with the Cubs as a free agent on Feb. 18—rejoining the franchise that drafted him in 1984, nurtured him to stardom and cut him loose—Maddux has sought to minimize his own importance.
"They were a good team to begin with," he says. "They beat us last year [in the Division Series] and I wasn't on the team, so I know they were good. I feel lucky on days I'm not pitching, because I get to watch the other four guys pitch, and they're fun to watch. You like to learn from the best."
In deferring to the younger pitchers-casting himself as pupil, not teacher-Maddux stands conventional wisdom on its head, rejecting the notion that it is his presence that gives the Cubs the best rotation in baseball, deep and talented enough to push the Northsiders past the pennant they missed by five outs last fall, to the World Series tide they have not won since 1908.
This winter elite starters were drawn, like iron filings clustered at a magnet's poles, to the game's elite teams. The Boston Red Sox paired Curt Schilling with Pedro Martinez, the New York Yankees added Kevin Brown and Javier Vazquez to Mike Mussina, and the Houston Astros snatched up Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens to accompany Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller. Among the teams with the four best rotations, the Cubs did the least and did it the latest but came out on top (box, right). "The Cubs have the best staff because of their depth," says Milwaukee Brewers general manager Doug Melvin. "I think all of the others have at least one question mark at the end of the staff. The Cubs have Zambrano at Number 5. That's probably the best depth of any of them."
Says Boston reliever Scott Williamson, "I think the only staff that could give us a run for our money is the Cubs'."
Though the euphoria surrounding his signing has been all-encompassing—the next day three columnists at the Chicago Sun-Times, a Windy City daily not owned by the Cubs' parent corporation, predicted a championship—Maddux does not represent a unique level of excellence on this staff, just an upgrade. Cubs starters last season led the National League by a wide margin in strikeouts and innings pitched, and finished second in wins, ERA and complete games. But the Cubs wanted more. Maddux fills the rotation spot previously reserved for 25-year-old Juan Cruz, a whisper-thin righthander with a high-90s fastball. After a flash of brilliance with Chicago on Opening Day against the Mets—he became the second Cubs reliever to strike out six consecutive batters-Cruz dominated at Triple A Iowa last season (1.95 ERA and 47 strikeouts in 50? innings). But he mostly struggled in his four big league stints. Cruz's ineffectiveness opened the door to a replacement. " Cruz wasn't going to be handed the job in camp," says Cubs G.M. Jim Hendry. "He has a lot of talent and had a good winter, but as [manager Dusty Baker] says, we're in the earn-it business."
Maddux does not become the ace, an undisputed bulldog, because it no longer suits either his disposition or his ability. "Do you really put him in the category of a Number 1 stud right now?" says St. Louis Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan. "I'm not sure you do." The quality of his rotation mates in Atlanta had long absolved Maddux of the responsibility of carrying a staff, and last year he regressed to a 3.96 ERA, his worst since a 5.61 as a Cubs rookie in '87. Maddux will not become a de facto pitching coach either. "I know I felt as a young player I was over-coached," he says. "I had a pitching coach, a third base coach, three or four pitchers all telling me what I needed to do on the mound. I realize their intentions were great, but it was nothing but confusing to me. If somebody asks, I'll tell him what I think, but not if he doesn't ask."
Maddux is being politic. Clearly he can offer much, maybe the most, to Prior, even though they're stylistic opposites. "Wish I could throw that fast," Maddux says of Prior. "Be more fun." (When these comments are relayed to Prior, he replies, "If I had a little more of his movement, I'd be in good shape.") Their Game 3 throwdown last fall was the best duel of the NL Division Series—a clash Baker advertised as "the young lion on our side" versus "the veteran-of-many-wars lion on that side"—and, with 133 pitches, Prior outmuscled Maddux 3-1. Asked to assess his rival afterward, Maddux said only, "He's got the best pitch in baseball. He knows how to locate a fastball." The two share GPS fastballs, careful game plans and cerebral temperaments. They emphasize the importance of efficient, repeatable windup mechanics. "We have the same release point, a lot of the same tendencies," Prior says.
During a side session on Sunday, Prior was working on his changeup, a pitch still under construction. Maddux reminded him it is a pitch he will throw infrequently in games because his fastball and curve are so effective and Prior should be concerned only with developing the confidence to use it, not with practicing it repeatedly. "He said, 'You're only going to throw it once, to one or two hitters, so you don't necessarily need to worry about it more than that,' " Prior says. "You just want to be comfortable and confident when you do have to throw it. That's where I'm at. I'm not going to throw it more, but I want to be confident that if I need it, I can go to it."