“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.
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.