The master learned to pitch with a voice in his ear. It was the voice of a man who would be dead inside of two years. That would be enough time—this brief intersection of skinny kid and wise old muse—to engender what may be the most sophisticated evolution of the art of pitching ever witnessed.
"First pitch, fastball in," the voice said.
Greg Maddux was 15 years old when he heard it. The batter was Marty Barrett, a 23-year-old minor leaguer headed for a 10-year career in the bigs. The voice belonged to Ralph Medar, a former scout who assembled pickup baseball games every Sunday at nine in the morning in Maddux's hometown of Las Vegas. The good ballplayers somehow always knew about the games, the same way basketball players know when and on which court to find the best neighborhood run. See you at Medar's, they'd say. Medar would stand behind the pitchers and give instruction. Maddux listened to the voice. The kid threw a fastball in. Barrett pounced upon it, sending a double screaming to leftfield.
The next inning Barrett stepped in again. (The games almost never drew enough players for nine to a side.)
"First pitch, breaking ball," came the voice.
The kid broke a decent curve over the plate. The pro took it for a strike.
"O.K. Now, fastball in."
Maddux threw. This time the barrel of Barrett's bat was not so quick. He connected, only not as solidly. The same pitch, but this time cleverly set up by slow stuff, produced a lazy fly ball to centerfield.
Oh, O.K., the kid said to himself. Now I get it.
Van Gogh had the south of France, Hemingway the battlefields and bullrings of Europe. Maddux had Medar's. The genius of the 22nd, and perhaps last, 300-game winner in the major leagues was inspired by the old man's voice.