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
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 title 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
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 2/3 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
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
overcoached," 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."
Maddux also possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of hitters, a
major reason he was unwilling to switch leagues. "People don't
give Greg much credit for the amount of time he puts in watching
tape and studying hitters, or how his knowledge of hitters
translates into an advantage," says reliever Mike Remlinger, a
teammate in Atlanta from 1999 through 2002. Maddux retains and
processes information like a computer. He lives in Las Vegas and
is an able, if infrequent gambler. (During a brief chat with a
reporter, he suggests a craps strategy.) His recall of hitters is
tremendous, and he'll share that sort of information with his
staff in an ongoing dialogue. "You're going to be able to pick up
a lot through talking to him about a hitter," says Clement. "We
do that with each other already, but it's nice to have somebody
new who's been successful and been doing it a lot longer."
All week the signing of Maddux--to a two-year, $15 million
contract with a $9 million option for 2006 that vests if he
throws 400 innings in '04 and '05 combined--was played as the
return of Chicago's long-lost son. His current deal was portrayed
as a symbolic reversal of the parsimony demonstrated by the
Tribune Company when Maddux became a free agent after winning his
first Cy Young Award in '92. "The Tribune Company, which has been
maligned unfairly for years for making money and not putting it
into the club, immediately has made a commitment to allow me to
take the money we're making here [this year] and put it into the
budget," says Hendry. The Tribune Company lined up more than $7
million in new revenue over the winter: The Chicago City Council
approved 12 additional night games at Wrigley (to be phased in
over the next three seasons), which are worth about $3 million
annually; the team will move the brick wall behind home plate to
add 200 premium seats that will bring in about $3 million; and
most of the Sheffield and Waveland Avenue rooftop owners settled
a lawsuit with the Tribune Company, agreeing to pay the Cubs 17%
of their receipts--another $1.2 million to $1.7 million annually.
That money is significant because Maddux's deal reflects Hendry's
willingness to exchange cheap, unproven talent for the security
of proven productivity, even at an inflated price. In November
the Cubs traded 24-year-old first baseman Hee Seop Choi, a
lightly seasoned prospect with a $305,000 salary and lots of
potential--in 202 at bats with Chicago he had a .350 on-base
percentage and eight home runs--for the Florida Marlins' Gold
Glove first baseman Derrek Lee, a 31-home-run hitter who'll earn
$6.9 million and then become a free agent. Cruz will earn
$340,000 working out of the bullpen or as a starter at Triple A
Iowa. The Cubs' payroll, currently projected to be in excess of
$90 million, will vie with the Dodgers' for tops in the league.
That win-now mentality did much to sway Maddux. "Younger players
worry more about themselves and what they have to do to get their
career going and get their piece of the pie," Maddux says. "I
know I did. But as you get older you care more about winning. You
know this team came very close last year, very close."
He snips a lace. "Some teams are rebuilding, and some teams are
eager to win," he adds. "This team is eager to win--this year."
He's just there to help.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JASON WISE NOW AND THEN As Maddux trained in Mesa, fans lauded the return of a prodigy who broke in with the Cubs (above).
COLOR PHOTO: STEPHEN GREEN [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: JEFF TOPPING/REUTERS A MAN IN NEED Baker's lack of faith in Cruz, his projected fifth starter, created a natural spot in the rotation for Maddux.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO ONE-TWO PUNCH The hard-throwing Prior (left) and Wood were the majors' top strikeout pitchers last season.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: MATT YORK/AP ON CALL Maddux, a four-time Cy Young winner, has much to offer his precocious proteges--not that he'll ever admit it.
"As a young player I WAS OVERCOACHED," says Maddux. "It was
nothing but confusing to me. If somebody asks, I'll tell him
what I think, but not if he doesn't ask."