Baseball's almost seamless history has had only one stark disjunction, the one about 1920, between the dead-ball and lively-ball eras. But within the lively-ball era there has been the steroids parenthesis--the era of some synthetically lively players--which now is closing.
Greg Maddux has thrived throughout it. Only two pitchers in the lively-ball era have had four consecutive seasons with an earned run average under 2.40--Maddux and Sandy Koufax, who threw from a mound five inches higher than today's. In Maddux's four seasons (1992-95) his ERA was an astonishing 1.98, two runs per game lower than the National League's 3.99 over the same period. Today, as he prepares to win at least 15 games for a record 18th consecutive year, he represents physical normality in baseball.
Just six feet tall and 180 pounds, Maddux is a reminder that, as Bill Veeck said, you do not need to be seven feet tall or seven feet wide to play baseball. When Maddux, now 39, enters the Hall of Fame five years after he retires, he will be the smallest major-league pitcher inducted since Whitey Ford (5 feet 10, 181), who retired in 1967.
When baseball is cleansed of steroids there will be fewer lurid records, like those of Barry Bonds in 2001. But numerous factors, from the strength training of hitters to the proliferation of hitter-friendly ballparks, will keep home runs plentiful. Besides, pitchers, too, have probably used steroids. Maddux says steroids made some track stars' legs move faster, so they probably increased some pitchers' arm speeds. Steroid testing began in 2003. In 2004, only one eighth as many players (12) tested positive as in 2003 (96). Yet home runs per game and slugging percentages increased.
In Maddux's first full season, 1988, the major-league-leading home-run total was Jose Canseco's 42. But of the 50-homer seasons in baseball history--there have been 36 of them--19 have occurred since 1990. This power explosion has not perturbed Maddux, who last year methodically became the 22nd 300-game winner, and perhaps the last for a long time. This year his 84th strikeout will be his 3,000th, making him the ninth pitcher with 3,000 K's and 300 wins.
He is proof--redundant proof--that ballplayers can perform well late in their careers without performance-enhancing drugs. Ty Cobb, who batted .316 in 1906 at age 19, batted .323 at age 41 in 1928. Warren Spahn, the winningest left-handed pitcher ever, got 158 of his 363 wins after turning 36 and was 23-7 at age 42. Henry Aaron--currently and, we may hope, for many years to come, baseball's all-time home-run hitter--had his best year at age 37.
Maddux says laconically that when he came to the big leagues he threw between 80 and 90 miles per hour, and today he throws the same four pitches--fastball, change, slider, curve--75 to 85 today. But he throws them with uncanny control: Among 300-game winners since 1900, his walks-per-nine-innings ratio (1.87) is fourth best, behind only Cy Young (1.49), Christy Mathewson (1.59) and Grover Cleveland Alexander (1.65), who played all or most of their careers in the dead-ball era. And the key to his success has been less the speed of his arm than that of his mind.
One year in spring training, facing a Met who had hit him hard the previous season, Maddux told teammates he would throw dinky sliders to encourage the Met to hit a home run. Maddux figured that hitters remember, and subsequently look for, what they crush. The Met homered--then, always looking for the same pitch, went hitless against Maddux in the regular season.
Leading 8-0 in a regular-season game against the Astros, Maddux threw what he had said he would never throw to Jeff Bagwell--a fastball in. Bagwell did what Maddux wanted him to do: he homered. So two weeks later, when Maddux was facing Bagwell in a close game, Bagwell was looking for a fastball in, and Maddux fanned him on a change-up away.
Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci collects such stories demonstrating Maddux's knowledge of hitters. Four times in one season, Maddux, while in the dugout, warned the man sitting next to him that the batter would line a foul into the dugout. Three times the batter did. Another time Maddux said on the bench: "Watch this. The first-base coach may be going to the hospital." The batter lined the next pitch off the coach's chest. Once with runners on second and third and two outs, Maddux's manager suggested an intentional walk. "Don't worry," said Maddux, explaining that on the third of his next pitches the batter would pop out foul to third. Maddux was wrong: The pop was a few feet fair.
Maddux, who grew up in Las Vegas, is a formidable poker player. Amarillo Slim, former winner of the World Series of Poker, once said: "The results of one particular game doesn't mean a damn thing, and that's why one of my mantras has always been 'decisions, not results.' Do the right thing enough times and the results will take care of themselves in the long run." Maddux has had a long run pitching the way Slim played. But all runs end, so this year pay particular attention to the most artistic pitcher of the lively-ball era.