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.

1 comment:

Ben said...

Fred, enjoyed your thoughts on the Big Three. The Tigers gave up quite a bit when they traded a young prospect named John Smoltz to Atlanta in 1987, I think it was, to get the veteran pitcher Doyle Alexander for their playoff run.

Glavine, steady as a rock and a born winner. Always would have liked to have him in Chicago.

Maddux was a true artist, consummate professional and a privilege to watch play. I was a vendor at Wrigley Field for eight years, including most of Maddux' Cubs tenure.

In a sense his starts were annoying because we were paid on commission, and Maddux would get so many quick ground balls and Ks that his typical start was a 3-1 Cubs victory in 2 hours flat. We barely had time to earn back our gas money. But he was so great that it was worth it.

He was also highly respected throughout his career for helping young pitchers, whether teammates or opposition, learn the nuances of the "game within the game."