"Kid," the sage said, "you throw hard enough to get drafted. But movement is more important than velocity."
"I believed it," says Maddux, now 38 years old and in his 19th big league season. "I don't know why. I just did."
How do you explain it? The kid heard it, and he believed it, the way a seminarian hears with clarity the call of God in a noisy, profane world. He was born to this calling. The other kids, muscles growing and hormones firing, wanted to throw baseballs through brick walls, and the other coaches kept imploring, "Throw strikes!" But the old man would say, "Bounce a curveball in the dirt here," and the kid would understand the intended subterfuge. It didn't hurt, either, that when the kid threw a baseball with his right index and middle fingers each atop the seams, the ball darted and sank with preternatural movement.
"God gave it to him, I guess," says Chicago Cubs bench coach Dick Pole, who worked with Maddux as far back as 1987, when the Cubs righthander was in his first stint with the team. "It's always moved like that."
Maddux is sitting in the visitors' dugout at Miller Park in Milwaukee the day after career victory 299, a 7-1 win over the Brewers in which he'd given up four hits and one run in six innings and improved his record this season to 10-7 Four days later, in his first attempt at getting his 300th win, Maddux would leave after six innings with the Cubs trailing the Philadelphia Phillies 3-2 in a game that Chicago would go on to win 6-3. His next try was expected to come against the Giants in San Francisco on Saturday.
Only three 300-game winners have ever had better control, as measured by walks per nine innings, than Maddux (1.90): Cy Young (1.49), Christy Mathewson (1.59) and Grover Cleveland Alexander (1.65). All of them were done by 1930. Only two pitchers, Lefty Grove and Walter Johnson, ever won this many games with a relative ERA (that is, ERA measured against his contemporaries') better than Maddux's 28.2% differential. Grove's ERA was 33.2% better than his peers', and Johnson's was 30.8% better. Both of those pitchers were finished by 1941. Maddux is, to most of us, unlike anyone else we've ever seen.
Once Maddux nails down number 300, only he and Roger Clemens will have survived maple bats, billiard-hard baseballs, steroid-juiced lineups, a construction boom of hitter-friendly ballparks and a laser-guided tightening of the strike zone—in short, the greatest extended run of slugging the game has known—to reach that milestone. Clemens did so with the sledgehammer of a mid- to upper-90s fastball. Maddux has needed stealth and intellect. A beautiful mind, only with a killer changeup.
So expertly has Maddux mastered the subtleties of pitching that he has become an iconic presence. What Ripken is to durability and Ruth is to power, Maddux is to finesse, forever the measuring stick for the few who might follow in his path.
"It's amazing," Pole says of the Maddux-Medar relationship, "to think what came about when two people collided. Right time, right place."
Maddux still hears the voice of the old man when he pitches, only the voice long ago became so familiar that it now sounds the same as his own. These are the commandments of pitching that he hears: