Saturday, June 13, 2009


A baseball milestone was passed about a week ago, and few people noticed it. When the Atlanta Braves released Tom Glavine it became the first time since 1987 that either he, John Smoltz or Greg Maddux were not on the team’s roster.

Although some may argue the point, I believe that Glavine, Smoltz and Maddux were the three best pitchers to perform for the same team at the same time (1993-2003), which is saying quite a lot. The Braves won 14 divisional championships with two or more of them on board, and five National League pennants, in 1991, ‘92, ’95, ’96 and ’99. The fact that only one of their World Series appearances (in ’95) ended in victory was as much a product of the baseball vicissitudes as anything else.

I’m not a Braves’ fan but I’ve always been a fan of their erstwhile Big Three. I like athletes whose actions debunk the conventional wisdom in their sports, and Maddux and Glavine certainly did that. The past 30 years have been (among other things) the “Radar Gun Era” in baseball, with young pitchers judged primarily by how high they can make the gadget’s electronic digits jump. Any kid who’s shorter than 6-foot-4 and can’t throw a strawberry through a battleship hardly gets a glance from scouts any more. Maddux and Glavine—both ordinary-sized fellas with extraordinary “stuff”— put the lie to such nonsense.

Maddux was particularly unjockish in appearance. His program height was six-feet even, but I am (or was) that tall and stared him in the forehead many times. Off duty, he often wore glasses. He’d have looked more at home in a cubicle in front of a computer screen than on a pitcher’s mound.

At 6-foot-3 and 200-plus pounds, Smoltz just about fit the cookie-cutter mold, and his high-90s fastballs thrilled the gun-toters. But he also had guile and “heart” in abundance, and could be counted upon to stick around the locker room until the last question was asked. Maybe that last thing shouldn’t count in assessing players, but we news guys are human (really).

Which of the three was best? The usual answer would be Maddux, and it’s hard to dispute. His 355 career regular-season victories rank eighth on the all-time list, and his trophy annex (I’m sure he has one) contains four Cy Young Awards. Watching him pitch was watching an artist at work. His fastball may have topped out in the 80s, but no matter—he worked batters high and low, in and out, fast and slow. He rarely delivered consecutive pitches at the same speed or in the same place

Ask the typical knuckleheaded thrower (think Kerry Wood) to describe his perfect game and he’d likely say 27 Ks. Maddux would say 27 first-pitch grounders to the shortstop. Still, his deliveries were so elusive that his 3,371 strikeouts are 10th on the career list. Why the Cubs let him go to the Braves via free agency in 1993 will remain one of the game’s enduring mysteries.

Maddux kept hitters off balance with his variety. Lefty Glavine’s trick was tougher: he got most of them out with the same basic pitch, a slider or changeup on the outside corner of the plate at the knees. Glavine would throw his first pitch there, and if he got the call he’d throw the next one an inch farther outside. And the next an inch farther. Batters waiting for him to come to them would wait in vain; in 22 seasons he never did. He was the 24th pitcher to top 300 wins. If he doesn’t return to the game, he’ll finish with 305.

Smoltz’s win total of 210 is a furlong behind those of his ex-mates and golfing buddies, but he did something few other pitchers have done, which is switch successfully to relief after a successful starting career. He became a bullpen closer after elbow surgery cost him the 2000 season and part of 2001, and in 3 1/2 seasons in the role was among the best, recording 154 saves. Then he returned to starting with nary a hitch.

Moreover, Smoltz was one of the best big-game pitchers ever, posting a 15-4 post-season record, and a 2.65 ERA. He was among the parties of the second part in the best World Series game I’ve seen, Minnesota’s (and Jack Morris’s) 10-inning, 1-0 win in the seventh game of the 1991 Classic, throwing a shutout into the eighth inning. I’ve voted for Morris for the Hall of Fame several times, largely off that performance.

If I’m around I’ll cast the same vote for Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz when their times come. I’m in no hurry; Smoltz is still at it (he’s now with the Red Sox, rehabbing) and I wish him luck.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009


They’ll play the next U.S. Open golf tournament in a couple of weeks at the penitential Bethpage State Park course on Long Island, and Tiger Woods will be favored to win. That’s because he’s favored to win every tournament he enters.

Tiger is unquestionably the best golfer of his era and, to my mind and that of many others, the best ever. Your position on the latter issue depends largely on how you compare modern athletes with those of previous periods, and, by me, it’s no contest. Thanks to advances in nutrition and exercise physiology, and the fact that their remuneration allows them to devote themselves to their sports year-round, today’s jocks are uniformly better than those of the past. A golfer is like a baseball pitcher in that he spends all his time perfecting a single motion, so all the athletic virtues aren’t necessary for his success. But they don’t hurt, and no golfer has them to the extent Tiger has.

Add to that a single-minded dedication to golf and a literal lifetime spent in honing his skills and you have a combination that can’t be beat. Tiger is 33 years old, young for his sport, but because he’s been swinging a club since he was in diapers he has an edge in savvy over players eight or 10 years older.

Victory in professional golf’s “majors” (the Masters, PGA Championship and U.S. and British opens) is how golfing greatness most often is measured. Tiger has 14 of those titles, just three fewer than Jack Nicklaus. Jack won his last major at age 46 while Tiger still is going strong, so short of a catastrophe he’ll break Jack’s record. But even if Tiger’s career ended tomorrow he’d still be No. 1 all-time on any other objective scale.

The above paean, however, doesn’t mean I root for Tiger. In fact, on the occasions when I tune in golf and he’s in contention, I usually pull for the other guys. Maybe that traces to a young life rooting against the Yankees. Maybe I’m a crypto racist—crypto even to myself-- but I don’t think so. There’s always been something about the guy that puts me off.

Part of it is my visceral reaction against the way he was raised, which seems more like an experiment in conditioning than what’s normally thought of as a childhood. Many are charmed by the tales of daddy Earl, a former Army officer, handing Tiger a sawed-off club at age six months, taking him to the driving range at 18 months and beaming as he broke 50 for nine holes at 3, but I think it’s weird. Worse, the example has caught on and we now frequently read about kids being channeled into high-powered sports-training regimens while still in grade school. Lots of ambitious parents are thinking that what worked for ol’ Earl might work for them.

Further, the Tiger who first appeared on the PGA tour in 1996 was no ordinary young man embarking on a great adventure but one with multi-million-dollar endorsement contracts in hand who’d been packaged for maximum financial return by IMG, the sports-agency and promotional octopus. Like his fellow tourists, Tiger usually would show up in the press tent after rounds to review his day’s shots, but any journalist wanting more would have to go through IMG, and the answer usually would be “no.”

That’s still the case, I’m told, and even those permitted to ask don’t get much in the way of answers. Tiger’s an adult now—married and the father of two—and spent two years at Stanford U., an estimable educational institution, but he’s still in the IMG cocoon, and if he has opinions on anything besides golf he keeps them to himself. Hey, they might hurt business. Similarly, while he must have friends (just about everyone does), they apparently take a vow of silence to stay in his circle. What goes on with Tiger stays with Tiger, or so it seems.

Tiger’s domination has been a mixed blessing for golf. There really are two PGA Tours: the regular one and the Tiger Tour, which has about half as many events. When Tiger plays the crowds are large and TV ratings are high, and when he doesn’t, they’re not. Other guys out there can play— probably more than in any past era—but the spotlight is so focused on him that they’re in permanent shadow. Sean O’Hair, Nick Watney, Paul Casey and Geoff Ogilvy probably could stump a “What’s My Line?” panel, but they were among the Top 10 on the year’s PGA money list last month.

It’s not just me that’s lukewarm about Tiger. As excellent as he is he suffers from a charisma deficit, and while his galleries always are large they lack the emotional connection to him that “Arnie’s Army” had to Palmer or “Lee’s Fleas” had to Trevino. People love an underdog and there’s nothing about Tiger that suggests that quality. Chances are, there never will be.

Indeed, his career so far recalls the line from the old shampoo commercial, where the gorgeous blonde pleads “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.” While the parallel isn’t perfect, that also applies to Tiger.