In a land of cartoonishly bulging sluggers, Greg Maddux was a tax accountant. The former major league starter took down giants with a protractor and pencil. For two-plus decades in the National League, his unimposing stature, bookish glasses, and unassuming demeanor camouflaged his brilliance on the mound. And during a decade of baseball that birthed a raging performance enhancing drugs scandal and obliterated home run records, Maddux did his best work.
He led the majors in wins three times in the 1990s, won four straight Cy Young awards, and his 1994 and 1995 seasons still look like misprints. During a strike-shortened 1994 campaign, Maddux finished 16-6 with a 1.56 ERA. Then, in the following year, he won 19 games with a 1.63 ERA. In 1994, baseball's next best ERA was more than a full run higher (2.74, Brett Saberhagen).
Maddux earned a place in Cooperstown with ease, as he received 97-percent of votes on the ballot in 2014. But does he ever think about how his statistics might've been more staggering without the Steroid Era running rampant?
"Not really," Maddux explained on the latest edition of the "New York Accent" podcast. "I mean, [peak PED use] was only for a couple of years anyway, you know. I thought I gave up a few steroid home runs but so did everybody else, you know. It was kind of a level playing field, everybody else facing the same guy. I didn't really feel like it was that big a deal, to be honest with you. It was what it was, and if you throw the ball where you want to, they're probably not going to hit it."
That simplicity was the foundation of Maddux's baseball genius. No dominant fastball? No problem. His was a game of angles, rhythms, and mixing speeds. What took other starters 125 pitches to achieve would routinely take Maddux far less labor. He was the master of efficiency.
"[John] Smoltz used to get mad all the time," Maddux recalled, "because if he wanted a complete game, he'd have to throw 120-130 pitches. It seemed like me and [Tom] Glavine were doing it around the 100-pitch mark... If you want to throw less pitches, you have to throw slower. So when they swing, they hit it fair."
In today's game, Maddux's approach is archaic. The modern pitcher is taught to throw with as much power as possible -- for a short amount of time -- and strikeouts are paramount. The differences in strategy are clear to Maddux.
"Now it's all about preventing contact, as opposed to pitching to contact," he said. "I was taught to try to keep the ball in front of the outfield. I think a lot of pitchers are taught to make them swing and miss. Philosophies change over time, and there are some pitchers around now that still kind of pitch to weak contact. Trust me, I'd rather strike a guy out than get a ground ball -- I'm no different than everybody else. But I realized that 300-foot opposite field fly balls are outs too. An out's an out."
For all his pitching greatness, Maddux is still best known all these years later for his iconic Nike commercial. So, how often does he hear the catchphrase, "Chicks dig the long ball?"
"It's kind of funny," Maddux said. "Yesterday, as a matter of fact, I heard it. It's amazing. You can win a couple of Cy Youngs, win a World Series. But as soon as you do that one commercial, now all of a sudden you're famous. You know, it was weird. I actually signed about 20 shirts the other day that said, "Chicks Dig the Long Ball."
You can listen to and watch the entire conversation of Maddux on "New York Accent" everywhere you get your podcasts, and on YouTube.