Yankees see Maddux, and wonder

The Cincinnati Enquirer

NEW YORK - Greg Maddux thought the deal was done. He was going to leave New York a free agent and land in Las Vegas as a member of the Yankees.

This was not the deal Maddux wanted in the fall of 1992, but it was the only one that met his criteria. The Yankees were willing to guarantee a five-year contract worth more than $35 million to secure the services of the Cy Young award winner. It was a bidding war with one contestant.

''Everything was going to get done that night,'' Maddux recalled at Yankee Stadium. ''If I hadn't made a call on the plane, I would have been here. Face it, New York to Vegas is a long flight. I just wanted to make sure there were no last-minute offers. To my surprise, there was one.''

The course of contemporary baseball was dramatically rerouted during Maddux' airborne call to his agent, Scott Boras. Were it not for the late-breaking interest of the Atlanta Braves, Maddux might have given George Steinbrenner the dominant ballclub he is always trying to buy.

Instead, Maddux has extended his Cy Young streak to four straight years, and solidified Atlanta's stance as baseball's ranking dynasty. He will start tonight's World Series Game Two against the Yankees for the defending World Champions. The Yankees, meanwhile, are still aspiring to win their first title since 1978.

No second guesses

''I think when you're happy with the choice you've made, you don't try to second-guess yourself,'' Maddux said Sunday. ''From the first year I was in Atlanta, I've been happy every day I've been down there. I've never had to say, 'What if?' ''

That question does occur periodically to the Yankees, and to the Chicago Cubs, who allowed Maddux to leave in a short-sighted battle of wills. Anybody tells you one man can't make a difference, ask any baseball person about Greg Maddux. Ask Yankee manager Joe Torre, for example.

''He's such an artist on the mound,'' Torre said Sunday. ''The only thing we can do is go up there and look for mistakes and hope he makes some.''

Maddux has not had much cause to doubt his decision. Ted Turner offered less money than did Steinbrenner ($28.5 million over five years), but the Braves' supporting cast was stronger. Plus, Atlanta provided him the opportunity to make use of all the intelligence he had gathered on National League hitters while pitching for the Cubs.

''The only reason I was considering New York in the first place was because Atlanta (initially) couldn't make room for me,'' Maddux said. ''They had to move a player, so New York was the place.''

A pitcher of Maddux' stature and skill surely would have been able to make the transition to the American League without an awkward adjustment period. But what pitcher, given the choice, wants to start from scratch in an unfamiliar league. Certainly not the pitcher who must defeat hitters without overpowering them.

''I think Mad Dog takes his greatest pleasure in trying to outthink somebody, set them up,'' said Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone. ''He's going to try to throw you a strike and still not give you anything to hit.''

Maddux' most ferocious fastball registers an unremarkable 86 mph on the radar gun. He gets people out with the most precise pitches in baseball.

''I've never seen anybody with the command of both sides of the plate in my lifetime,'' Mazzone said.

Because Maddux pitches in Game Two instead of the World Series opener, he will not have to adjust to an American League umpire's strike zone. National League umpires will be calling balls and strikes in the even-numbered games, and Maddux walked only 28 men all season under their scrutiny.

His main adjustment will be to the Yankees, and their famous ballpark, a place he knows mainly from photographs.

''I didn't know the field had color to it,'' Maddux said. ''I thought it was all black and white.''

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published Oct. 21, 1996.