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October 21, 2014

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RON KANTOWSKI:

Greg Maddux says goodbye with reticence and modesty

And so it became official on Monday, which must have pained Greg Maddux — first, because Monday is a day on which you can play golf; and second, because he hates talking about himself.

Maddux Says Goodbye

After 23 seasons and 355 wins, Las Vegas-native Greg Maddux retires from the game of baseball.

News of his retirement from major league baseball actually got out on Friday. Maddux, 42, wouldn’t talk about it much, other than to confirm it. You could almost see him shrugging his shoulders over the telephone line, because that’s the way he answered most questions — especially the ones that alluded to the mastery of his craft, which is pitching a baseball, and making it do things that defy physics, such as backing up and turning right to catch the outside corner.

Probably the only reason Greg Maddux agreed to talk about retiring from baseball in front of a horde of baseball writers during the baseball winter meetings was that it was sort of convenient, the Bellagio being in his hometown and all. Plus, it meant he could play golf on Tuesday without a bunch of them calling his cell phone.

To Maddux, facing the press was like facing Barry Bonds with the bases loaded. But he didn’t like talking to the press for the usual reasons. He didn’t like talking to the press because somebody invariably would want to talk about how great he is.

Unlike everything else in baseball, you can’t look this up. But the last time Maddux blew his own horn was to prevent a four-car pileup in the Spaghetti Bowl.

A few minutes before 11:30 a.m., the greatest pitcher (at least in the modern era) to paint the outside corner with a modest-looking pitch that anybody who had played American Legion baseball thought he might be able to hit was invited to the podium in a Bellagio ballroom by his agent, Scott Boras.

In typical — and literal — Maddux fashion, the four-time Cy Young winner was wearing what appeared to be a golf shirt. It was blue and had big diamonds going down one side. Maybe it wasn’t a golf shirt, but you could play in a shirt like that if you had to.

In typical Maddux fashion, Boras said there would be no one-on-one interviews afterward. But he said Greg would take questions for an hour.

In typical Maddux fashion, it was only 25 minutes before he grew weary of talking about himself.

“I’m just here, really, to say thanks to everybody in baseball,” said the future Hall-of-Famer, who really hasn’t changed that much since he was pitching for Valley High School in the mid-1980s.

“From the teams I played for, the GMs, coaches, pitching coaches, teammates, clubbies, people who work at visiting ballparks, people that you see every day in baseball, who always treated me so great — I just really came up today to say thank you.”

In typical Maddux fashion, he mentioned the clubbies — the clubhouse attendants — in the same sentence as the Cubbies. And the Braves, Dodgers and Padres, the other teams for which he played during his brilliant 23-year career.

He said he thought he could still get guys out, but he knew since spring training that this past season would be his last. He didn’t tell anybody because he didn’t want the last couple of months of his career to become a “dog and pony show.”

Note to Oscar De La Hoya and NASCAR drivers — this is how you are supposed to retire. No dog. No pony. No show.

His retirement announcement was much like his career. Sort of boring — but in a good way. Anybody who showed up hoping to witness an emotional display had to be disappointed. It was like an opposing batter flailing at one of his change-ups. Did somebody say emotional? This wasn’t Bobby Cox, his manager in Atlanta. This was more like Wally Cox, the unassuming actor who provided the voice for “Underdog,” the old cartoon crime-fighting canine.

Toward the end of his remarks, Maddux thanked his wife, Kathy. Maybe this is where he’ll lose it, I thought. Maybe this is where he’ll leave one out over the plate, and he’ll shed a tear, or his voice will crack like one of those cheap maple bats favored by today’s players.

Nope. Like a bases-loaded ’tweener in the gap with him on the mound, it didn’t happen.

He referred to his wife as “The Wife.” He referred to his daughter, Paige, and his son, Chase, as “The Kids.” He wasn’t being unfeeling. He was just being Greg Maddux. Like a 7-1 game in Municipal Stadium (take your pick of which one) in September, it was pretty uneventful to the final out.

He said he loved it when Kathy let him sleep in on the days he pitched and made him a sandwich just before he left for the ballpark. When somebody asked about Cooperstown, he said Chase was playing in a tournament there next year, and he couldn’t wait for that. I don’t think that’s what the question was about, but that’s the way Maddux answered it.

There is probably a lot to know about Greg Maddux that we’ll just probably never know, because he’s not vain enough to let somebody write a book about his life. Maybe he’ll write a book about pitching someday, about painting the outside corner, about winning 355 games in the major leagues, more than any other pitcher in the modern era except one. And Warren Spahn (363 wins) began his career in 1942, some 24 years before Greg Maddux was born.

Perhaps my favorite anecdote about Maddux is how he made his major league debut. It came on Sept. 2, 1986, Cubs vs. Astros, in Wrigley Field. It was an 18-inning game. Maddux entered in the 17th inning — as a pinch-runner.

It wasn’t exactly the “Pulski Pump,” or whatever they say on those TV commercials about salesmen who stay at Holiday Inns. But to paraphrase what they also say on those commercials, that was Maddux. Pinch-runner, lay down a bunt, field his position, tip the clubhouse attendant. Anything to help his team win.

That’s probably the way he would want to be remembered.

But he left the news conference before anybody could ask him.

It was 12:30 and the sun was starting to peek through the clouds.

There was probably still time to get in a quick nine.

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