The Greatest Pitcher Of Our Lifetime

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I hate when people say there will “never be a greater player” because I know it can’t be true — on many levels.

Take, for instance, Barry Bonds (collusion or not, nobody will). When Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s “unbreakable” record and when Mark McGwire broke Roger Maris’ unbreakable record and Barry topped them both, I suppose you could say he was a once-in-a-lifetime — but you certainly couldn’t say he was “greater.” The way someone acts off the field, how he deals with his family and friends, is a far better measure of the man than anything done on the field.

That said, I don’t feel ashamed when I say Greg Maddux may just be the greatest pitcher of all time — certainly in my lifetime.

Statistically speaking, there is not enough column space to tick off the accomplishments of the right-hander from Las Vegas. He has 355 wins, 18 Gold Gloves, eight All-Star appearances, four Cy Young Awards and one championship ring.

Ironically, the years I covered the Atlanta Braves were the seasons he did not win a Cy Young — but I was still in awe of what I saw on the mound. I had never — and have yet to see — any other pitcher “control” a game like Greg Maddux (I missed Tom Seaver in his prime). Whenever Maddux was in a jam (usually due to a fielder’s error), he would work through the problem with uncanny ease.

His longtime manager Bobby Cox put it best.

“Everybody says he wasn’t a strikeout guy. He was a strikeout guy,” Cox told The Associated Press. “He’d get the strikeouts — first inning, man on third, one out, infield back, give ’em a run — believe me, he’d strike out the hitter.”

The way Maddux pitched made it fun for the fans. When you’re at the stadium, it’s often hard to pick up pitches. Maddux had so much movement on his pitches that it didn’t matter what the pitch was called. Four-seamer? Change-up? Call it a strike. And while, as Cox pointed out, Maddux could strike you out, he often didn’t want to. By letting hitters put the ball in play, he was able to keep his pitch count down. As a result, he would often finish a complete game with about 80 pitches.

Off the field, Maddux was like most ballplayers I’ve known — kind of silly. He was aware people thought he was a “genius,” and he did like to do crosswords, but he also was known as a prankster, and he could bring it with the sarcasm and playful insults, too.

Maddux retired last month and he did it with class, a manner befitting the great player he truly was.

Mark Vasto is a veteran sportswriter and publisher of The Parkville (Mo.) Luminary.

© 2008 King Features Synd., Inc.

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