LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - NBA Hall of Famer Larry Bird had it. So did hockey legend Wayne Gretzky.
They saw the whole court and rink. They could see plays develop before making the first pass. It's called vision, but it has nothing to do with reading an eye chart.
Greg Maddux has it too. He sees things most pitchers don't. How a hitter has inched up on the plate or is holding his hands differently. He knows when to purposely throw a pitch out of the strike zone. He knows when a hitter is expecting a fastball and when he's waiting for a changeup.
We watch him pitch and we marvel, then we try and figure out how he does it.
"I remember a game last year," Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "It was late, game on the line, and there was a base open with a left-handed hitter up who Greg had had some trouble with in the past. I went out there to see what he wanted to do and he said, `Gimme two pitches. I think I can pop him up to third.'
"I got back to the dugout and I said to Leo (pitching coach Mazzone), `You're not going to believe this. He says he's going to pop him up to third with his second pitch.'
"Sure enough, he popped him up to third on the second pitch."
Maddux can still walk through a hotel lobby and not be recognized. But, when he puts on a uniform and strides to the mound, he's recognized as the smartest pitcher in the game.
When he's not pitching, he sits in the dugout and watches. He pays attention to the details overlooked by other pitchers. He wants to see how a hitter reacts to different pitches in a variety of locations and then he incorporates the knowledge into his approach, using a hitter's tendencies against him.
"HE HAS TO BE AS SMART a baseball player as has ever played the game," hitting coach Merv Rettenmund said. "He's on top of everything that happens on the field. He might be sitting on the bench and shooting the bull, but he's watching hitters. They say managers manage three innings ahead, well, he pitches three innings ahead."
Said Maddux, "When you don't have an overabundance of talent, you've got to find a way to pitch as well as pitchers with talent. Obviously, I can't throw it faster or make my curve break bigger, so I have to pay a little more attention to details."
What Maddux does, Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver says, is pitch. He never throws a pitch without thinking about its purpose and location. There are few, if any, pitchers who can legitimately make the same claim.
"During the course of a game, some pitchers just throw," Seaver said. "But Maddux is one of the few guys who seems to pitch. He's one of the pitchers I've enjoyed watching and the key word in there is pitcher."
Seaver says there are three elements to pitching - velocity, command and movement - and the least important is velocity. To that list, Maddux adds changing speeds. He wins because he combines command and movement, while changing speeds, with the dexterity of a magician.
NEW YORK METS FIRST BASEMAN Todd Zeile was asked the other day how a pitcher with an 88 mph fastball can be as successful as Maddux. Zeile raised an eyebrow and joked, "Since when does he throw 88?"
Truth be told, the velocity of Maddux's fastball is closer to 86 mph, not much harder than a high school pitcher's. But, that's where the parallels end.
Maddux doesn't throw anything straight. Every one of his pitches wiggles like a worm dancing at the end of a fish hook. His command is so precise he rarely misses by more than an inch or two. And, no two pitches ever come plateward at the same speed.
"There are some pitchers who use the whole plate, some who use half the plate, some a third of the plate and a few who use the corners. He's in the latter category," Mazzone said. "He's got the greatest control I've ever seen. If he's off target, it's by inches."
Said Zeile, "He can effectively change speeds on almost every pitch. If you put a radar gun on him, it would be tough to find the same two speeds in a row. He keeps you from being able to time him correctly. The ball looks the same coming out, but it might be two or three miles faster or slower. It's maybe the difference between hitting a line drive to left field and a ground ball to third."
Maddux, the third pitcher in major league history to post 13 consecutive seasons of 15 or more wins, learned early that command and changing speeds would be his ticket to success.
A COACH IN LAS VEGAS, where he spent his teen years and now resides, organized Sunday pickup games and matched him against minor league and college players while he was still in high school.
Ralph Medar, who died before Maddux's senior year, often stood behind the mound as he pitched and offered advice.
"I was fortunate. I learned at a young age that movement and location are more important than velocity," Maddux said. "I was fortunate to have somebody teach me that and I was smart enough to believe it. Ralph had a way of letting you learn the game at your own pace. He never really volunteered a lot of information, but he always had the right answer after your question. He realized an answer to a question would last longer than a statement.
"He was the kind of guy who you wish was still around so you could say thanks."
Maddux has taken those lessons to heart. His fastball is no harder now than it was in high school and he throws almost the same changeup. Yet, he's won 19 games or more seven times, has 240 wins and most baseball writers agree, is a lock for the Hall of Fame.
"If I had to choose between 94 mph and straight and 86 and on the corners, I'll take the 86," he said. "But, it's good location that makes you smart. If my location wasn't good, I'd be just another dumb pitcher."
Maddux doesn't look imposing on the mound, he doesn't have baseball's best body and his fastball isn't so fast. Yet, he has won four Cy Young Awards and owns a career 2.83 earned run average. His 180 wins since 1990 are the most in the majors and his wins, innings, complete games and shutouts rank second among active pitchers to Roger Clemens.
"Before you know it you're 0 for 3 and you're only two hours and five minutes into the game," Zeile said. "He knows what he's doing out there and he does it better than anyone else."
Reach Bill Zack at email@example.com
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