Fort Myers, Fla.
Glen Perkins had just arrived at the World Baseball Classic and was eating dinner in the hotel bar when Greg Maddux, the Team USA pitching coach, walked by.
“I told him, ‘I’ll be here a while,” Perkins said, and later that night, Perkins and his favorite pitcher spent 90 minutes talking Zen and beer, Confucius and situational pitching, forever altering the way the Twins closer views his craft.
“He will always have me thinking,” Perkins said. “That is a conversation I will not forget.”
Monday morning, as he prepared to pitch, Perkins spoke of Maddux the way a fledgling guitarist in the 1960s might recall a conversation with Jimi Hendrix.
“I kept thinking, ‘I’m sitting here talking pitching with Greg Maddux,” Perkins said. “That doesn’t seem like real life to me. Not only was he the best pitcher of probably all time, but he was a guy I grew up watching. People talk about Babe Ruth being great. Well, I never saw Babe Ruth. Greg Maddux won four Cy Youngs when I was at my peak of fandom.”
During their conversation, a spring training game played on the TV. Maddux glanced up, saw a groundball single and said, “That was a stupid pitch.”
“I didn’t even know he was watching, but he picked up on everything,” Perkins said. “A guy had swung late at an outside fastball. The pitcher came back with a breaking pitch, and the guy rolled a single through. Maddux was saying that if you throw a fastball and the batter is late, throw another fastball. That’s why he thought it was a stupid pitch.”
During another at-bat, a pitcher threw two fastballs out of the strike zone. Maddux told Perkins the next pitch should be a changeup. Conventional wisdom holds that when you’re behind 2-and-0, the next pitch should be a fastball for a strike, to avoid a walk.
Maddux turned conventional wisdom on its head.
“I said that everything I’d been taught was that you had to have the hitter swing at a harder pitch, then throw the changeup off of that,” Perkins said. “Maddux said that if the hitter was expecting a fastball, you threw a changeup because of the hitter’s expectations. I had never heard that before. It made so much sense.”
Maddux recommended that Perkins begin watching video of himself and opponents.
“He said he threw every pitch of his career with maximum conviction and concentration,” Perkins said. “I think that’s part of why I didn’t succeed as a starter, because I had a hard time concentrating that much. I think even as a reliever there are times I still throw a pitch just to throw a pitch, to get to the next pitch or the next hitter.
“He didn’t do that. And he didn’t do that for 18, 20 years. For 3,500 or 4,000 innings. So he faced 20,000 batters, threw about 60,000 pitches and never let up on a pitch. I think I probably throw about 500 pitches a year now.
“If I break it down like that, I should be able to do all right concentrating on every pitch.”
Perkins kept that in mind Monday, when he struck out the side in a minor league game at the Twins’ complex.
Maddux fared better than that against Perkins, in at least one at-bat. The two faced each other in 2008 in San Diego, when Perkins was still a Twins starter and Maddux was pitching in his final season. Maddux made solid contact once. Perkins admitted he might have let up on that pitch.
“He said, ‘Underestimating your opponent can lead to catastrophe,’ ” Perkins said. “Here’s Greg Maddux quoting Confucius. Later, I said, ‘Underestimating your opponent can lead to disaster,’ and he corrected me.”