The long-shot St. Louis Cardinals took a 3-1 lead over Atlanta in the 1996 NLCS. The Braves stayed alive emphatically, 14-0 in Game 5, and then the series moved to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
The Braves had taken batting practice and were back in the home clubhouse. The TV was turned to ESPN, where the crew was analyzing Greg Maddux’s alleged mediocrity in previous starts in the NLCS.
Maddux overheard the commentary. Third baseman Chipper Jones would later relay to reporters Maddux’s reaction:
“Doggie turned around, looked at the TV and said, ‘I must really stink then.’ I think it fired him up.”
Maddux’ nickname was Mad Dog, and thus “Doggie” for short. And he did go to the mound with fire that night, beating the Cardinals 3-1.
He threw 80 pitches that night to record 23 outs. Gary Gaetti, the St. Louis third baseman, summarized the secret of Maddux’s greatness: “He has a way to make bad pitches look good.”
The Braves won again in Game 7 and, as defending champions, advanced to the World Series against the Yankees.
John Smoltz (and rookie Andruw Jones) beat the Yankees 12-1 in Game 1. And the next night, Maddux was magnificent and then some, getting 24 outs on 82 pitches in a 4-0 victory.
Back-to-back October starts, one to stay alive in an NLCS, the next in the World Series, and Maddux got 47 outs on 162 pitches. Of those 162, 125 were strikes. In Yankee Stadium, he faced 29 hitters and started 24 with strikes.
I always loved watching Maddux pitch — but watching him that night was the one for me to remember him by.
“The best way I can describe Maddux is that he throws you a strike without giving you anything to hit,” Leo Mazzone, the Atlanta pitching coach, said in the visitors clubhouse. “Tonight, he stayed almost exclusively with the fastball and the changeup. At one point, he threw four straight changeups.”
That happened in the sixth inning, when the Yankees put on two runners, Wade Boggs hit into a double play and Bernie Williams was the out needed for Maddux to escape.
“Bernie gave him a tough at-bat …,” Mazzone said. “Greg started him changeup, changeup, changeup, changeup, then fastball in hard and another fastball in hard.”
And finally a changeup that Williams tapped to second. If it hadn’t violated the rules on the press credential, I would have stood and applauded in the auxiliary press box as Maddux headed from the mound.
Remarkably, the Yankees came back to win that Series and start a dynastic run that would lead to four titles in five seasons. They beat Maddux in Game 6 in the Bronx, 3-2, with a three-run fourth set up when Marquis Grissom butchered a fly ball in center field.
Maddux had come to Atlanta in 1993. This was before MLB-TV, before you could order the MLB package to give you 95 percent of games on cable.
This still was the time when the first places to check for out-of-market games were for the Braves on TBS or the Cubs on WGN.
My first stop was always TBS. If Tom Glavine or John Smoltz was pitching, I’d watch a couple of innings and get antsy to click. If Maddux was pitching, I’d watch until he left the ballgame.
As a baseball fan, I loved any chance to watch Bob Gibson or Nolan Ryan, any chance to watch a young Doc Gooden or Pedro Martinez.
But my all-time favorite pitcher to watch was Greg Maddux on TBS in the mid-’90s. To marvel at his mastery, starting in 1993 and for six seasons when he was a combined 107-42 with a 2.15 ERA, with 159 unintentional walks in 191 starts … it was a wonderful respite from the hapless Twins of the time.
On Wednesday, Maddux swept into the Hall of Fame, leading a grand three-man group that included teammate Glavine and slugger Frank Thomas. How did this happen with a guy who couldn’t touch 90 on a radar gun?
“Ever since you were a little kid, you had coaches tell you, ‘Get your pitch,’ ” Charlie O’Brien, Maddux’s former designated catcher, once said. “With Doggie, you don’t get your pitch.”
And that was it — the secret of greatness.