June 2008

Perfection

In the eighth inning of the Dodgers’ 4-3 win over the Indians this past Sunday, Juan Pierre stole his 29th base of the season. Although the throw from catcher Kelly Shoppach beat Pierre to the base, the savvy baserunner pulled out one of his tricks and drew his left arm away from the glove angling down for the tag, then shifted his weight toward his right side and finally, neatly touched the far edge of the base with his right hand. High above the field, in the booth he has occupied since 1962, Vin Scully described the action, and in a move as smooth and adept as Pierre’s, immediately connected the present with the past. Before Pierre could conclude his dusting off, catching-his-breath routine, Scully was back in the early sixties, reminiscing, reminding his viewers of another base-stealer who could confound and frustrate his opponents with his own brand of aggressiveness, speed, and boldness. In an instant, Juan Pierre and Maury Wills found a home together: tied into a package known as Dodger baseball, they were intertwined by a man and voice whose experiences and memories reach back across more than a half-century of our national pastime.

Listening to a ballgame described by Vin Scully is like sitting down with a thousand baseball yearbooks. Over the course of the two or three hours of any contest, interspersed within the balls, strikes, swings, putouts and hits, in coordination with the hundreds of slight pauses in between the action, Vin Scully travels the baseball universe. The early season struggles of James Loney in 2008 may be juxtaposed with Duke Snider’s difficulties in 1947. A full-bore, all-out dive by Ryan Freel can evoke the name and attendant story of Pepper Martin. A heavy sinker from the right arm of Derek Lowe might instigate a rumination on Clem Labine. Eras and ballplayers mesh in a Vin Scully broadcast; the present – the game’s moments and actors always elevated by the narration of the broadcaster – plays out before us and offers myriad opportunities to reflect and relate. With the past sitting patiently on the stoop, waiting to be offered an opportunity to join in on the fun, Vin Scully sews together the elements, creating a colorful and vibrantly resonant quilt we know as “baseball.”

Vin Scully came to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1950. From Carl Erskine’s first no-hitter in 1952 to Hideo Nomo’s first in 1996, from Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” in 1951 to Kirk Gibson’s improbable blast in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, from Don Drysdale’s 58.2 scoreless innings in 1968 to Orel Hershiser’s streak of 59 consecutive shutout innings in 1988, from Ebbets Field in Brooklyn to the Los Angeles Coliseum to Dodger Stadium, from Roy Campanella to Mike Piazza, from Duke Snider to Shawn Green, from Maury Wills to Davey Lopes to Juan Pierre, from Johnny Podres to Fernando Valenzuela, Vin Scully has watched and described the game, and has conducted a symphonic version of the events which simplifies and expands their place in baseball’s timeline. Vin Scully serves as baseball’s great connector, in which his woven threads tie him and his audience to the game and its rich history and produce a cohesive vision and understanding many layers deep: illuminating, organizing, deciphering, and instilling affection.

In the middle of every Scully-called Dodger game, the Hall of Fame broadcaster takes a moment before the sixth inning to share a particular memory or thought with his audience. He might speak about Tommy Davis and the year in which the 23-year-old outfielder drove in 153 runs. He may talk about the 100th Anniversary of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Perhaps he’ll share a memory of Jackie Robinson in his last game with the Dodgers on October 10, 1956, when #42 swung, missed, and was thrown out at first for the final out of the 1956 World Series. These 20-second essays offer a distillation of Scully’s sensibility and character, and reveal the breadth of a man who, when it comes to the ballfield, has seemingly seen it all. On the same afternoon when Pierre collected his 29th steal of the 2008 season and Scully harmoniously connected the past with the present, Sandy Koufax stood in the center of Scully’s reminiscence. Scully spoke in reverential tones – 49 years after the fact – of a night on June 22, 1959 when Koufax struck out 16 Philadelphia Phillies during a 6-2 complete game win. “Later on in August of that year,” Vin Scully added, “He would strike out 18 Giants, leading the Dodgers to the pennant and the World Series.” And then, as he always does, Scully concluded with his warm invitation, “Let’s go back to this one.”

Vin Scully and Sandy Koufax. For me, they will forever be connected.

On a late summer night in the second week of September in 1965, at 9:46 pm, Sandy Koufax threw his final pitch in the eighth perfect game in history. Koufax’s performance on September 9 stands at the apex of an extraordinary run of excellence which found its home in the distance between mound and home plate, and flashes upon our baseball world like the brightest star in a galaxy littered with sparkles and flickers. On September 9, 1965, over the course of one hour and 43 minutes on a ballfield in Los Angeles, Sandy Koufax achieved perfection. Appropriately, this achievement was brought to life and given its due by Vin Scully’s unique voice and acute perceptions. The announcer’s description of the action on the field, his attention to the small ancillary details like the time, the attendance, and the date, his empathy for Koufax’s isolation amidst the expectation and hopefulness, and his ability to see and describe the unseen and indescribable painted a vibrant picture that elevated the action and laid magic upon the field. On September 9, 1965, at Dodger Stadium, perfection was achieved in two places: on the mound and in the broadcast booth.

The images of the present. The tones of the past. The timelessness of the game truly arises when the twin features of old and new meld their particular components and fashion a world where it all fits together. Since 1950, Vin Scully has arranged these elements in a beautiful, evolving work that invites us to remember, look ahead, and always, return to the game on the field.

For a transcript of Vin Scully’s ninth-inning call of Sandy Koufax’s perfect game, visit: http://www.salon.com/people/feature/1999/10/12/scully_koufax/

Thanks to baseball-reference.com, retrosheet.org, and mlb.com for information that helped with this piece.

Marking the Way

“A milestone is one of a series of numbered markers placed along a road at regular intervals.  Milestones are constructed both to reassure the traveler that the proper path is being followed and to indicate distance traveled, or the remaining distance to the desired destination.”


Incredibly, Ken Griffey, Jr.’s  Major League debut occurred more than 19 years ago.  On April 3, 1989, Griffey – batting second and playing centerfield in the Mariners’ lineup on Opening Day – doubled off Dave Stewart in the top of the first for his first big league hit.   Junior’s first milestone.  On June 9 – 2,438 games later – the man who was once called “The Kid” drove a 3-1 pitch over the right field wall for his 600th home run.  Perhaps his last milestone.  For all of us who had watched and waited for the drive that placed him in the company of Bonds, Aaron, Ruth, Mays and Sosa, the surprise lay not in the achievement itself, but in how long it took to get there.  At some point in the mid-1990’s, most of us assumed the journey would be shorter and straighter, more celebrated, less confusing and painful, and would end with spectacular fireworks heralding the completion of a once-in-a-generation career.  In between over-the-wall catches to snatch away home runs, a gazelle-like sprint from first to third to clinch a Division Series, and rifle-powered throws to cut down base-runners, Griffey launched majestic fly balls over outfield walls with rapid-fire frequency.  The milestones seemingly occurred every year during his first decade in the Majors: he hit his 100th home run on June 15, 1993 at the age of 23; one year later, he collected his 500th career RBI.  His 1000th hit followed in 1995, and then Griffey powered out his 200th home run in 1996.  His first 50-home run season came in 1997 and served as a prelude to his 300th career home run in 1998.   The milestones were flying by at breakneck speed, continually reminding us of the seemingly inevitable conclusion which grew larger and more defined as the distance closed.  But when he finished the 1999 season with 398 homers, the road – one he had followed spectacularly for 11 seasons – branched off to offer a new path toward the expected destination.  Griffey chose to take his march to Cincinnati – the city where his father had helped the Big Red Machine win back to back World Series titles in 1975 and 1976.  And although the path changed, the milestones maintained their presence:  early in that first season with the Reds in 2000, Griffey became the youngest player in Major League history to collect 400 home runs.  Just 141 days past his 30th birthday, Junior was more than halfway toward equaling Hank Aaron’s majestic 755.  The magical ride appeared steady, home was in sight, and Ken Griffey, Jr. was confidently driving toward immortality.  And then the milestones ended and the journey – once so concise, so straight, so resolute – meandered, bogged, stuttered, and broke away from the course that we all expected.  In the four years between 1997 and 2000, Ken Griffey, Jr. hit 200 home runs.  Over the next four seasons, he hit 63.  Injury-watches replaced gazing at the markers, and Ken Griffey was largely forgotten.  

The next milestone on the road finally appeared in the middle of the summer in 2004 when Griffey became the 20th member of the 500-home run club.  The rare achievement – once expected and anticipated as just another marker on the road to a feat even more unique – had been dulled by the mishaps that prolonged the march toward what we once perceived as inevitable, and Griffey’s 500th home run symbolized more of an exhale than a celebratory leap.  The milestones that we had followed for so long had led us down a road we never could have expected.

The baseball encyclopedias and storybooks are littered with the unexpected.  Dazzy Vance didn’t win his first game in the Major Leagues until he was 31-years-old, and then he compiled a mountainous peak of excellence that saw him lead the Majors in strikeouts in the twenties, record 197 wins, and earn induction in the Hall of Fame.  A half-century before Ken Griffey, Jr. delighted us with his display of talent, another centerfielder opened up his career with immense promise and then found his path derailed by injury.  In 1941, Pete Reiser won the NL batting title and finished second in MVP balloting at the age of 22.  He was the youngest batting champ in league history.  The next season, Reiser was hitting .383 on July 2 when he collided with the outfield wall while tracking a fly ball.  It was the first (but not nearly the last) time he had to be carried off the field.  Leo Durocher once said, “Willie Mays had everything.  Pete Reiser had everything but luck.”  In another universe, Reiser’s career would have been littered with milestones all pointing the way toward a plaque in Cooperstown.  

There are others, too:  men whose final destinations came from unformed beginnings.
No one could have imagined that when the Yankees made a trade with the Kansas City Athletics on December 11, 1959, their newly acquired right fielder named Roger Maris would go on to pass one of baseball’s most hallowed milestone achievements.  Maris’ ascendancy in the baseball consciousness coincided with another unanticipated and startling climb.  From 1955-1960, Sandy Koufax went 36-40 with a 4.10 ERA.  After a season of blossoming promise in 1961, Koufax peaked like very few ballplayers in history.  In his final five seasons in the Majors, Koufax averaged 22 wins, 289 strikeouts, and compiled a 1.95 ERA (167 ERA+).  He won five ERA titles, led the league in wins on three occasions, struck out a (then) Major League record 382 batters in 1965, was named the NL MVP in 1963, and pitched no-hitters in four straight seasons, culminating the mastery with perfect game on September 9, 1965.  Koufax’s journey did not follow the usual course, and his milestone achievements stand within his seasonal odysseys:  20 wins, 300 strikeouts, ERA’s less than two.  Fall Classic dominance.  Four no-hitters.  A brilliance illuminated by 10,000 foot-candles of brightness.  Koufax’s burst of excellence resonates for its immediacy and suddenness and its abrupt conclusion that leaves us only with those memories of greatness.  The attendant milestones mark the trip with the same splendor.  

More than thirty years after Sandy Koufax stepped off the mound for the last time, another left-hander began a similar run of excellence and dominance.  Unlike Koufax’s meteoric rise and equally abrupt goodbye, this southpaw’s apex evolved from an earlier phase in which the milestones had begun to identify the journey.  Randy Johnson made his first start for the Mariners in the same year Ken Griffey, Jr. debuted for the team, and one year later, Johnson passed his first milestone with a no-hitter against the Tigers.  After that, the markers began to appear with greater and more impressive frequency.  His 1000th strikeout victim swung and missed in 1993.  His 99th win (not quite reaching the normal marker, but getting close enough to squint and see it in the distance) came on the last day of the 1995 season when he pitched a complete game and allowed just one run in Seattle’s victory over California in the third one-game playoff in American League history.  His 2000th career strikeout came in the final game of the first season of Johnson’s rise to the top in 1997, and began a run of dominance that would end in 2002.  From 1997-2002, Randy Johnson averaged 20 wins and an astounding, jaw-dropping, still hard-to-believe 340 strikeouts.  There have only been nine seasons since 1893 when a pitcher struck out 340 batters in a season – Randy Johnson averaged that total for more than a half-decade.  His ERA over that span was 2.58, and his ERA+ was better than Koufax’s during his run.  And then, when the lightning and thunder portion of the journey wound down, the milestones kept appearing, kept passing, and kept leading toward the realization of the truly historic.  3000 strikeouts appeared before the blur of 2001, when Johnson recorded the third-highest
strikeout total in modern history, won his third straight Cy Young Award, recorded three wins in the World Series, and was named co-MVP of the Fall Classic.  His 4000th strikeout came in 2004, as did a perfect game – the 17th in Major League history.  After a brief time in New York, Johnson has followed the signs leading the way back to Arizona, back to the place where he reshaped the image of the strikeout pitcher in the dictionary, where he leapt to the top of the headlines, where he continued to travel toward a destination reserved for only the greatest of the game.

Randy Johnson currently sits on 288 wins.  The milestone 300th win beckons, offering itself as one final indicator on this Hall of Fame journey.  Ken Griffey, Jr. currently stands 269 RBI short of 2000, a few re-energized seasons away from becoming only the fourth player in history to achieve that nice, round number.  Neither man needs to play another day in the Major Leagues to ensure his legacy and place in the baseball timeline.  Ken Griffey, Jr. was the face of baseball for a decade – he played with a flair and poetry and dynamism that few have ever approached.  He made us believe in the attainment of achievements that we previously considered unapproachable.  Randy Johnson revived the sensibility of another era, when pitchers could instill fear into the jelly-legged torsos of batters, and along the way, established himself as one of the greatest to ever toe the rubber.  Both men – teammates for more than eight seasons – have reached and passed enough milestones to solidify their places among the game’s most elite.  They will always serve as reminders of a particular place and time in the baseball world, when Griffey’s sweet swing and backwards baseball cap offered a joy and a counterpoint to the menacing glare of Randy Johnson as he prepared to unleash another slider on an overmatched batter.  But Griffey’s 600th home run milestone and Johnson’s 300th win milestone remain important and essential to the story.  In connection with their achievements, we will be given the opportunity to remember and recall those times when these two ballplayers showed us something all too rare and fleeting.  We will be given the opportunity to relive and reassess, and the thousands of images and moments that we associate with Ken Griffey, Jr. and Randy Johnson will coming flooding back to us in a gust not unlike the refreshing sensation of feeling the wind against our face with the window down on a journey to anywhere.  For that is the job of milestones – to remind of us where we’ve been and to give structure to where we are headed.

Thanks to baseball-reference.com for statistical information that helped with this piece.

Stories and Myths

He was larger than life.  Sustained by a gargantuan appetite, he crisscrossed the countryside and exhibited a prodigious ability to dominate his chosen craft.  He was a paragon of strength, as brave as could be, and his exploits captivated anyone lucky enough to bear witness.  As he continued to wield the tool of his trade, the stories of his journeys expanded, growing even larger than the man himself, until finally, they evolved into the stuff of legend.  This was Babe Ruth.  This was Paul Bunyan.



There are heroes and villains in the story of baseball.  Improbable adventures, epic battles, glorious victories, and bitter defeats color the boxscores.  Larger than life characters populate the record books and encyclopedias.  In the first edition of The Bill James Historical Abstract, James wonders if Hal Chase might have been a character created by Robert Louis Stevenson.  In his wonderful book, Baseball America, the author and baseball historian Donald Honig sets up the historic convergence between Walter Johnson and Smoky Joe Wood on September 6, 1912 by borrowing imagery and language from the American Wild West.  Baseball even has its own creation myth:  the story of  Abner Doubleday inventing baseball in Cooperstown in 1839.  Although this particular tale has been repudiated, and we now have a much clearer and realistic timeline to associate with the evolution of the game of baseball,  the myth retains its importance.  It provides insight into a specific desire to understand and claim, and as such, lends itself to our understanding of the national pastime and its place in the history of our country.  The stories of our baseball heroes – polished by fantastical stories and grounded in empirical evidence – illuminate the game and lend a sense of otherworldliness to our love for it.  In a sense, the stories make our heroes come alive, and add color and depth to the numbers.  Did Ruth call his shot in the fifth inning of the third game of the 1932 World Series?  We don’t know.  But it falls in line with everything else we know about the Babe, and the myth creates a finer-tuned image of him.  The stats and stories of ballplayers align themselves into thousands of photographs which imprint themselves in our conversations and memories, and the resulting assembled pictures reverberate with a liveliness and tangibility that would otherwise remain static and unimpressionable.



Last week, Major League Baseball held its annual First-Year Player Draft in Orlando, Florida, and the yearly excitement of predicting greatness, prospecting for unrefined gems, and assembling components of the future had its few days in the sun.  This year, 29 men and one woman – all in steep contrast to the youth surrounding them – lent a poignant counterpoint to the stories of kids chasing their dreams to become the next great baseball star.  Andrew Porter, Mahlon Duckett, James “Red” Moore, Harold Gould, Emilio Navarro, and Mamie “Peanut” Johnson were among the 30 former Negro League players invited to Orlando to participate in a Negro League Player Draft in which each MLB club selected one of the former players in attendance.  None of thirty – when their arms were strong, when their bats were powerful – were given the opportunity to play in Major League Baseball.  When I read the news of this additional element to the draft, began to study the names and bios of players like Bob Mitchell, Jim Colzie, Otha “Li’l Catch” Bailey, Bill Blair, “Prince” Joe Henry and Charley Pride, and started writing questions for them (MLB Productions was given the opportunity to conduct interviews with some of the invitees), I began imagining their baseball lives:  the players they had seen, the battles (on and off the field) they had fought, the myths they had created.  Despite the profound advancements in research and scholarship that have given substance to the careers of players like Bert Simmons, Mack “Mack the Knife” Pride, Cecil Kaiser, Robert Scott, Ulysses Hollimon, and Walter Lee Gibbons, we still know too little about the exploits, achievements, glorious victories, and bitter defeats of the Negro Leaguers.  But, in place of the solidity of the statistical evidence, we do have stories and myths that can foster an appreciation for their careers and abilities.  These ballplayers – men like Irvin Castille, John “Mule” Miles, Hank Presswood, Bill “Lefty” Bell, James Tillman and Enrique Maroto – may have played against Satchel Paige when he would saunter into the game, call in his fielders, and dare to strike out the side.  They may have seen Josh Gibson exhibit his prodigious strength on the ballfield – the powerful ability to hit the ball as far as anyone which gave life to a myth of the time he hit a ball so high that it didn’t return to earth until the next day.  They may have been awed by the blinding speed of Cool Papa Ball, who ran so fast, it was asserted, he could flick off the light switch in his room and then be in bed before it got dark.  Some saw a 15-year old Willie Mays before the was the “Say Hey Kid.”  Some  played alongside a baby-faced Ernie Banks as he worked out the rough portions of his game with the Kansas City Monarchs.  Some watched Hank Aaron hit cross-handed and wondered if the kid could ever amount to anything.  And some even played against Jackie Robinson when he was a sore-armed shortstop just out the Army.  The former ballplayers – men like Joseph B. Scott, Neale “Bobo” Henderson, Carlos Manuel Santiago, Walt Owens, Charlie Davis and Walter McCoy – saw games and played against players who, for the most part,  have been confined to incomplete sketches and caricatures.  But for the thirty former Negro leaguers who attended the draft in Orlando this past week, they own more than hazy outlines.  Their memories can take us back to another era; their stories can enliven our impressions and evaluations, and their myths can add incomparable depth to our considerations.  For a time last week, the Negro Leagues lived and breathed again, and the stories of a particular time and place were passed on from 30 former Negro Leaguers to another generation. Without their stories, without their graciousness and willingness to sit for a time and share their oral histories, our game would not be so rich and textured.

The story of baseball resides not only on the playing fields and in the statistical evidence of performances.  The connected stories and myths that accompany our knowledge and expand our recollections remain essential.  They color, illuminate, magnify, and reveal.  They sharpen our arguments, augment our conclusions, and add spice to our assertions.  Every performance or achievement we witness today begins a time-line of connectivity that reaches back into the past, imploring us to remember and contextualize.  The timelessness of baseball originates here – in the stories and myths of the ballplayers and moments that echo across the fields and reach into our memories.

SmoltzMadduxandGlavine

“Hitting is timing.  Pitching is upsetting that timing.”

When a hand cradles a baseball and the fingers settle upon one of the myriad possibilities that arise, a subsequent artistry can be created.  The forefinger and middle finger can lie along the seams, each digit exerting equal pressure on the ball.  The same two fingers can also rest across the seams, again with equal amounts of force being placed on the connection.  The ball can be choked back into the base of the palm.  The ball can be held delicately with the fingertips.  The amounts of pressure can be altered.  With a twist or flick of the wrist, different torques of spin can be generated.  When the ideal combination of these elements and possibilities is achieved, the flight of the ball from pitcher’s hand to catcher’s glove moves across the three dimensions and into a fourth – a place in our mind reserved for the best that we have seen:  a collection box for pitching perfection.

Greg Maddux won 194 games with the Braves from 1993-2003. (Mark J. Terrill/AP).

Over the course of three successive seasons in the 1980’s – 1986, 1987, and 1988 – three particular pitchers began their Major League careers and struggled to find those grips, pressure points, twists and flicks that would spawn artistry.  In their respective debut seasons, their aggregate numbers produced a 6-15 record and a 5.51 ERA.  Two decades later, they have combined for 865 wins, a 3.29 ERA, 8,930 strikeouts, 154 saves, seven Cy Young Awards, and countless moments and pitches that all reside in that collection box of memory.  From inauspicious beginnings to celebrated conclusions, John Smoltz, Greg Maddux, and Tom Glavine have intertwined their careers, and the sum totals of moments and exhibitions of virtuosity resonate like few other confluences in baseball history.  For me, they are the Willie, Mickey, and the Duke of a generation.  A trio of ballplayers, refracted and reflected against one another by the twin variables of time and geography, forever connected by their similarities, contrasts, and adeptness on the ballfield.  Their identities and numbers do stand alone, but they are also subsumed by the connection.  SmoltzMadduxandGlavine.  A breath and phrase that speaks volumes about three extraordinary careers that found a home together for a decade.  

Working the extremes of the strike zone with the patience of a sculptor who quietly and methodically chips away at his stone, Tom Glavine never gave in.  His countenance on the mound always even, his focus never wavering, Tom Glavine explored and then claimed the outside black of the plate.  Change-up after change-up, pitches drifting to the plate, falling away as if pulled toward a home six inches off the plate – a safe haven away from the ferocity of the bat.  This unassuming but powerful interpretation of pitching that led to 305 wins, two Cy Young Awards, and a World Series MVP to acknowledge a masterpiece in the 1995 Fall Classic.

When he stood atop the mound and placed his fingers on the ball, Greg Maddux became Picasso.  He reinvented the art form, causing us to reconsider how we saw and appreciated the dance of the ball from mound to batter’s box.  With the slightest alteration of pressure upon the ball, with the unperceived change in the speed of the ball, Greg Maddux painted master works that we hadn’t even considered.  The pitch bores in on the left-handed hitter’s hip, bee-lining itself till the very end, when, as if it has just remembered an errand on the next side street, the ball darts back toward the center of the plate.  It whispers across the black, and the batter, having already given up the battle, consigns himself to serving as just another print autographed by “Greg Maddux.”  17-straight seasons of 15 or more wins.  350 victories in all.  Four Cy Youngs.  A magical sequence of two summers in 1994 and 1995 when he was as good at pitching as perhaps anyone has ever been.  Greg Maddux was devious, artful, mischievous, aggressive, and one of the greatest pitchers to ever stride to the mound.

I close my eyes and see John Smoltz standing on the rubber, looking in for the sign.  Underneath his jersey with the number “29”, his ubiquitous t-shirt with the blue sleeves ending around the elbow.  The classic delivery unleashing lightning.  Sliders that exploded.  Splitters that disappeared.  A first-pitch fastball that never changed plane or direction but simply eluded bats by its sheer force.  And even on a few rare occasions, a fluttering knuckleball emerged – just to confound, bemuse, and add to the legacy.  At the age of the 24, facing his boyhood idol Jack Morris in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, he took a shutout into the eighth inning – it would be the start of an iconic postseason career that has witnessed 15 wins against only four defeats.  John Smoltz was lightning – the brightest light illuminating its surrounding with such force that an imprint was left long after the flash.  Whether it was his 1996 season, when all of that talent and all of those magical pitches joined forces to contribute to 24 wins and a Cy Young award, or whether it was his career as a closer when, allowed to direct that fierce arsenal into the contracted experience of one-inning, John Smoltz was neither patient nor mischievous – quite simply, he was filthy.

Smoltz, Maddux, and Glavine.  If the mound and the distance between the rubber and home plate served as their tapestry, their gallery owner was Leo Mazzone.  The rocking sage – perched on the bench in the dugout – quietly overseeing his charges, watching them, aiding them in their development from apprentices to journeymen to master craftsmen.  Quietly passing on the accumulated knowledge that he had learned from Johnny Sain, who perhaps passed on a bit of wisdom that he had heard from his former teammate, Warren Spahn:  “Hitting is timing.  Pitching is upsetting that timing.”  And through the thunder and lightning of sliders and splitters, through the perfected patience of changing speeds and living on the corners, and through a playfulness that gave the batter just enough of a of a pitch to ground it or lift it weakly somewhere on the diamond, SmoltzMadduxandGlavine – in the alternating shadows and sunlight of thousands of innings – pitched like few others, and in the process filled enough collection boxes with enough images and memories to last three lifetimes.

John Smoltz.  Greg Maddux.  And Tom Glavine.  They are all near the end now, winding down and putting the finishing brushstrokes on their magnificent visual autobiographies.  Selfishly, I hope they continue to pitch.  I want to see Tom Glavine continue to mystify batters with that same falling-away change-up.  I want to see Maddux make a run at Spahn’s 363 wins and then maybe take on Christy Mathewson and Pete Alexander, who, with their 373 wins, have always seemingly stood beyond the grasp of modern-day pitchers.  And I want to watch John Smoltz pitch one more time – pain free, loose and happy, the master in the middle of diamond – and invite some helpless hitters to try and hit that darting slider.  And perhaps not so selfishly, I also hope they retire together.  I hope that one day, in the same space in the plaque room of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, three plaques will rest together.  In my mind’s eye, they will always be together – three gunslingers, three artisans, three paragons – each working his own unique magic, each defining his own brand, each illuminated by the other – Smoltz, Maddux, and Glavine.

Thanks to baseball-reference.com for statistical information that helped with this piece.