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How’d he do that? Magician Maddux fooled hitters all the way to Hall

Jul 25, 2014, 1:01 PM EDT

Greg Maddux is my favorite pitcher. A few years ago I wrote why. For that one, I wrote about my favorite Maddux game, an 84-pitch masterpiece he threw against the New York Yankees in July 1997. Today I’m going to write about the best game I ever watched Maddux pitch live. That was Game 2 of the 1996 World Series. They’re really just about the same game.

Most of the time, when people try to explain the wonder of Maddux, they tend to fall back on how ordinary his stuff was. I’ve fallen into that trap myself. He wasn’t 6-foot-10 like Randy Johnson, and he didn’t throw 103 mph like Nolan Ryan, and he didn’t break off flubbery curveballs like Bert Blyleven or throw heart-stopping change-ups like Pedro Martinez, or pitch with unchained fury like Bob Gibson.

Everything about Maddux seemed so ordinary — he wasn’t big and wasn’t imposing. He could, when he felt like it, throw a 91- or 92-mph fastball, but he never felt like it. He wore glasses much of the time.

[MORE: Maddux also Hall of Fame character  |  Former teammates remember Maddux]

The thing is: It was all an illusion. That was why Maddux so thoroughly intrigued me. It was a magic show, a Ricky Jay virtuoso performance where the magician feigns ignorance until the trick is done. His stuff was actually amazing … depending on what you mean by “stuff.” Every pitch of his moved and fluttered and dived and lifted at his command. He struck out more than 3,300 hitters in his career, and while the time was obviously very different, his strikeouts per nine innings (6.06) was almost exactly the same as Bob Feller (6.07). He understood that an 89-mph fastball, when the hitter is looking for something 10 mph slower, has roughly the same effect on hitters as a 99-mph fastball compared to regular fastballs.

“Hitting is timing,” Warren Spahn said. “Pitching is upsetting timing.” Nobody understood that better than Maddux.

He was also a brilliant fielder. Nobody talks about that as being part of a pitcher’s stuff but in many ways it is. If a pitcher can take away a dozen hits year on balls hit up the middle or good bunts, that’s worth a few mph on the fastball, isn’t it? Maddux at his best took away the middle of the field.

And Maddux also understood that people’s common perception about his stuff being average worked to his benefit. The simplest card trick in the world is “Pick a card, any card.” But magicians understand the countless nuances — how to force a card on someone, how to control the card, how to reveal the card. The easier it looks, the more remarkable the illusion. Maddux made it look like he was all but defenseless out there. In reality, though, he held all the cards all the time.

In Game 2 of the 1996 World Series, he walked to the mound in the first inning at Yankee Stadium with a 1-0 lead, and he promptly put sleeper hold on the Yankees and the city of New York. The Yankees hit the ball — they would hit the ball all night — but the hits would not amount to anything. Wade Boggs singled in the first and stayed there after a lineout and groundout. Paul O’Neill doubled in the second and was stranded by two benign grounders. Maddux hit Derek Jeter in the third, but a force play and a caught stealing ended any scoring notions.

[MORE: Let’s watch Maddux pitch, ask ourselves ethical questions]

The game moved fast, too fast. This was another Maddux trick. He had this unique ability to speed things up so that hitters felt like they were sprinting downhill. He threw strike after strike after strike. In tennis, and in hockey and soccer too, coaches talk about how you want to “take time away” from an opponent. That’s not really a baseball concept, but that precisely what Maddux would do — hitters just felt like they were running out of time. Maddux threw just six pitches in the fourth inning — Bernie Williams hit the ball hard but right at Fred McGriff, Tino Martinez bounced the ball back to Maddux, Cecil Fielder bounced an easy one to shortstop. It was all getting away from them.

You could just feel the helplessness cascading through Yankee Stadium. When a pitcher is just blowing away hitters with blazing fastballs and numerous strikeouts, a crackling energy buzzes through baseball stadiums. Every fan is on the edge of the seat, and they think “Try harder!” or “Swing faster!” But Maddux blunted all those emotions. He sucked energy out of stadiums. The harder you tried, the worse things got. The faster you swung, the more harmless the ground balls. There were three more of those harmless ground balls in the fifth inning. It seemed a moral victory when Joe Girardi at least forced a full count before succumbing.

Good time here to jot down a few of my favorite Maddux stats. He gave up four home runs in 25 starts during the strike-shortened 1994 season. That year, he gave up 28 extra-base hits and prompted 21 double-play balls. He unintentionally walked 14 batters and did not throw a single wild pitch in 1997. Lefties hit .195 and slugged .234 against him in 1995.

[MORE: Maddux will enter Hall of Fame with blank cap]

It’s fun to compare Maddux with Roger Clemens because they were contemporaries and they finished one victory apart and with about the same number of innings. But they were so different. Clemens’ velocity and the violence of his pitches overwhelmed. He pitched with a snarl. Clemens certainly has a strong case as the more dominant of the two — Bill James has broken this down and believes that Clemens was the better pitcher (and, in fact, perhaps the best pitcher of all time). But it is worth mentioning that Maddux, against odds, had a better strikeout-to-walk ratio and a lower WHIP. It is worth mentioning because watching the two pitch you would never believe it.

Maddux gave up back-to-back singles to Jeter and Tim Raines in the sixth inning of that World Series Game, and for the first time — for the only time — the fans stood and cheered and believed. Wade Boggs stepped to the plate. He watched the first pitch go by for a strike because he always did. Then he grounded to second base for an easy double play. Bernie Williams followed with his own ground ball to second. The threat was over. The fans sat down.

The rest was easy. Two strikeouts — the only two strikeouts of the game — and a grounder surrounded a pointless single in the seventh. Three groundouts and a single made up the eighth. And, with that, Maddux took his leave. Mark Wohlers finished it off in the ninth by striking out the side; I’m sure after flailing at Maddux’s mesmerizing pitches for eight innings, Wohlers seemed to be throwing about 212 mph.

When it was all done, Maddux had thrown 84 pitches and had recorded 19 of his 24 outs as ground balls. Add in the two strikeouts, one caught stealing, one liner to first, and one fly ball to left, you had a ballgame. But my favorite part of all was in the Yankees’ clubhouse after the game, where players sheepishly talked about how they were conned.

“He was throwing nothing special,” Bernie Williams said.

“It looks so easy,” Paul O’Neill said.

“You feel comfortable against him,” Joe Girardi said.

“The ball was right there, we just didn’t swing,” Williams said.

And so on. It was as if they were simply coming out of a state of hypnosis. That was what Maddux could do. In Game 6 of the World Series, the Yankees did get to Maddux. Well, they scored three runs on him, all in one frenetic inning. The magic didn’t always work. But it worked most of the time.

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