There is no such thing as never in life, but this is close. As a former sports columnist for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, I saw a slew of Maddux's games during his 11 seasons with the Braves, and I never took his greatness for granted. Never. Not once. I remember saying to myself on numerous occasions while watching Maddux make hitters look silly, "You better enjoy every bit of what you're seeing from this guy, because you'll never see anything like this again."
OK, that last never I just mentioned works in this situation. Never have I seen a pitcher more proficient on a consistent basis than Maddux, and he was in the same Braves pitching rotation as Tom Glavine, who is also on this year's ballot, and future Hall of Famer John Smoltz. It's just that Maddux was on a strikingly higher level than his lofty teammates and the rest of his peers. It went beyond his voice that barely rose above a whisper. He also owned a slight build of 6-foot and maybe 170 pounds.
You didn't expect somebody so unassuming to become so overwhelming whenever he took the pitcher's mound, but Maddux did just that. In fact, he was baseball's Picasso, because he painted masterpieces with his right arm. He accomplished as much in a couple of ways: He placed his pitches within millimeters of his target, and he was the master at setting up hitters with pitches he would use later in the game to destroy their minds -- and their batting averages -- even more.
So Maddux was baseball's Sigmund Freud, too. He also was baseball's Usain Bolt, because he was extremely fast between pitches. If any of his innings lasted long enough for somebody to finish a hot dog, it was too long by Maddux standards. Former Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone once told me, "The reason he works so quickly is because he's not worried about anything out there on the mound but making a good pitch at that particular time. Once that pitch is gone, he's forgotten about it, and he's thinking about making the next pitch."
It made sense, which is why Mazzone tried to instill Maddux's philosophy of speedy games into others. Some got it, but many didn't, and the hard-driving pitching coach discovered in a hurry: You can't teach somebody to become baseball's Picasso, Freud or Bolt.
All of that said, with Maddux officially on the Hall of Fame ballot that I'll receive during the next few days as one of the Hall of Fame voters, I began to review his resume in detail. Then something occurred to me out of nowhere that I thought was impossible: Maddux was even greater than I already thought he was.
Have you really looked at what he did during his 23 seasons in the Major Leagues, which included his first seasons (1986-92) with the Cubs before he joined the Braves in '93 and concluded with a return to the Cubs in 2004 plus time with the Padres and the Dodgers? His accomplishments are so otherworldly that it's difficult to tell where to start, but I'll go with this: He won four consecutive National League Cy Young Awards (1992-95). I mean, that's ridiculous. Nobody had ever done such a thing before Maddux reeled off his streak, and only Randy Johnson has done it since.
That's enough to make Maddux a no-brainer choice as a first-ballot Cooperstown inductee right there. He'll get my vote, and he should get nearly all of the ones of my colleagues for that Cy Young run and for the 355 victories. Those are Maddux's victories overall, and that's also ridiculous. Only seven pitchers won more than Maddux in baseball history, and they all are in the Hall Fame.
If you're still not convinced that Maddux was greater than great, there were his 1994 and '95 seasons, when he finished with an ERA of 1.56 and 1.63, respectively. Only Walter Johnson had ERAs in that vicinity during consecutive seasons, and Johnson joined Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson and Ty Cobb as the first players elected into Cooperstown. That tells you all you need to know about Maddux's place among baseball's immortals, but there's also this: He impressed you with his fielding and his hitting, as well.
As for fielding, Maddux has 18 Gold Glove Awards.
Nobody else has that many Gold Glove Awards. Not Brooks Robinson, not Willie Mays, not Ozzie Smith, not Keith Hernandez. Nobody but Maddux, and he even went a stretch capturing 13 of them in a row (1990-2002).
As for hitting, Maddux gave the Braves an unofficial designated hitter in their lineup whenever he pitched, even though they play in the NL. In case you didn't know, pitchers are typically overwhelmed at the plate, but Maddux often was the pitcher's version of Pete Rose with a bat. He finished his 1998 season with the Braves hitting an impressive .240, for instance, and he did so while compiling the best ERA (2.22) in the Major Leagues and the most shutouts (five) in the NL along the way to an 18-9 record and another Gold Glove Award.
I could go on, but you get the idea. If Maddux isn't elected into Cooperstown on his first try ... well, it has to happen.
It will happen.