It wasn’t until the World Series began last Saturday that we truly appreciated how much we had missed it a year ago. What was most gratifying about the event was the unapologetic way baseball asserted itself anew. In spite of what turned out to be a redundant new round of playoffs–both wild-card teams lost in the first series–and in spite of the television catastrophe that turned out to be the Baseball Network, and in spite of last year’s strike and the fan ennui that has lingered over the game since its return in the spring, the World Series was back, and it accurately reflected everything that is dignified, elegant, and compelling about the sport. From the team introductions, during which the TV announcers kept their lips buttoned, to the stunning rendition of the national anthem (who was that, anyway?), to the way, as ever, the play separated out the performers one by one–heroes and goats, and sometimes goats then heroes–with two talented pitchers dueling away at the center, with all of the drama baseball routinely packs into a game in which nothing seems to happen, this was the best the sport had to offer. For anyone who missed it: too bad.
Imagine if baseball had come back with one or even two wild- card teams in the World Series; if some misguided power-that-be in ownership had decided to put a rabbit in the World Series baseball to produce high-scoring games in an attempt to win back the TV audience; if rule changes had been abruptly imposed–say, four fouls being an out–to quicken the game’s pace; if cheerleaders had been brought in to perform on the dugout roofs, and the seventh- inning stretch had been lengthened to allow a 15-minute performance by Up With People. Imagine all these things and more, and then remember that the 1995 World Series featured what were clearly the two best teams in baseball–one a Cinderella that hadn’t appeared in a World Series in 41 years and hadn’t won a championship in 47, the other a four-time bridesmaid in the 90s, playing in a city that had never won a major sports championship of any kind–with two great pitchers on the mound at the outset–again, one with one Cy Young Award, a recovery from a potentially career-ending arm injury, and a history of pitching well in the playoffs and the World Series, the other about to become the winner of an unprecedented fourth straight Cy Young (no one else has even won three in a row) but with a checkered history in postseason play and no World Series experience. And an ex-Cub to boot.
That’s where the drama was, as it so often is in the first game of the World Series: on the pitcher’s mound. It should be admitted, right away, that we were deeply and personally involved in this one, the way a fan ought to be. The Cleveland Indians’ Orel Hershiser and the Atlanta Braves’ Greg Maddux are very similar as pitchers: both emphasize craft over pure talent, and smarts over sheer ability. Yet we have never liked Hershiser, not even when he was almost single-handedly leading the Los Angeles Dodgers to the championship in 1988, while we have always liked Maddux, even when he was 6-14 with the Cubs in 1987.
Hershiser, for all his talent as a pitcher, has an air about him of the mousy but vindictive villain in a Victorian novel–quietly efficient on the surface but with unmentionable vices hidden underneath. He is an interesting mixture of seemingly contradictory qualities. His face has a long, thin, canine look to it, but his preening gestures on the mound, all tidy licks and discreet wipes, are distinctly feline. His posture as he reads the catcher’s signal is submissive and inferior, with his shoulders heavily hunched, and in beginning his delivery he brings his glove up against his cheek like a grown-up Christopher Robin cradling Pooh Bear. Yet his motion has a vicious little kick to it, and as he delivers the ball to home plate he juts his jaw forward in a plainly proud and aggressive manner, as if it were a small boat cutting its way through heavy surf. In many ways he is like some mythological spawn of Hades, half man and half animal, half submission and half animosity. To put it mildly, we don’t like him–never have, never will.
Maddux, by contrast, is so determinedly human and self-effacing as to almost disappear into a crowd, even in the moment he stands on the pitcher’s mound, in the center of the infield, in front of 50,000 people at a baseball stadium and with millions more looking on at home. Of course, those millions might have been an exaggeration earlier in the playoffs, as with the Baseball Network’s regional coverage all series were scheduled at the same time and local channels could choose but one game to concentrate on. Even so, one would have thought that Maddux would have been a natural attraction–the dominant pitcher of his generation, a cool customer once described as a “baby-faced assassin” by Tribune columnist Bob Verdi (who has never let anyone forget it since) but clearly beset by nerves in the postseason. A great player struggling with great demons: what a natural TV draw. Yet the local Chicago channels ignored him in both his outings against the Colorado Rockies (he pitched a mediocre game in the series opener, then a steady if unimpressive game in the clincher) and also in his one sharp performance in the Braves’ sweep of the Cincinnati Reds (a much more satisfactory game altogether, as he finally adjusted comfortably to the postseason pressure). Why would local TV stations reject the top pitcher in baseball today, as if opting for a Miami Heat-New Jersey Nets game instead of a Michael Jordan-Shaquille O’Neal matchup? That is just one of the imponderable questions that has led to the abrupt dissolution of the Baseball Network effective at season’s end.
Maddux, in any case, is a plainly human pitcher of plainly human talents–up to a point. Where Hershiser, even after arm surgery, is equipped with a good drifting fastball, a nasty curve, and a change-up with a tendency to disappear like a boat around a river bend, Maddux works almost entirely with a fastball and a change-up these days, neither offering the oomph or the dipsy-do movement of a Randy Johnson heater or a Tim Wakefield knuckler–although to say “neither” is perhaps a little deceptive. It’s true Maddux has almost entirely abandoned the curve he used to struggle with here in Chicago–remember those innocent days?–but his fastball is not one pitch but several. He can cut it in on the hands of a left-handed hitter, or let it ooze out into the hands of a right-handed hitter. He also can call on it to sink, a particularly ruthless tactic, and he can throw all these pitches at the same speed or at varying speeds. Unlike a slider, which gives off that telltale “red dot” batters talk about as it spins toward the plate with the seams rotating along that distinctive axis, Maddux’s various fastballs are almost indecipherable from one another, and he throws all of them–and, of course, that wonderful little change-up, darting for the dirt like a sparrow alighting for a dust bath–with pinpoint control. He must be the most confounding pitcher for a hitter to hit. His pitches are there, and not there.
When Maddux reads the catcher’s signal, he stands calm but with his right shoulder dipped, just a little bit off-kilter. He bows his head and passes his glove across the top of his cap as if he were tugging on a T-shirt, then stands erect and strides purposefully down the mound, with his left arm and glove leading the way at the angle of a spinnaker. Then he delivers the ball with a nice little hop that plants him in perfect fielding position–everything efficient, no wasted motion. Hershiser pitches like a bullfighter, with grand, sweeping gestures; Maddux pitches with the ease of a broker, armed with an umbrella and standing at a curb, lightly stepping just beyond a taxi’s splash.
Yet would he behave so calmly in this, his first World Series game? His composure was tested right away, as Cleveland leadoff man Kenny Lofton grounded to shortstop Rafael Belliard, a defensive specialist replacing the injured Jeff Blauser. Belliard booted the ball, Lofton reached base, stole second and third, and came home on a groundout. But Maddux settled in. He didn’t allow another base runner until Jim Thome singled in the fifth, and no one after that until Lofton singled in the ninth. By then Hershiser was long gone and the game was all but over.
Hershiser squandered his gift run in the second inning, when he allowed a fastball to drift too far across the plate to Atlanta cleanup hitter Fred McGriff. He swatted it into the seats with a swashbuckling flourish worthy of Errol Flynn. From there, Hershiser settled in almost man-for-man with Maddux, retiring nine in a row and then five more after a leadoff walk to Dave Justice in the fifth. When he struck out Atlanta rookie phenom Chipper Jones to end the sixth, he stormed off the mound screaming at himself in triumph.
The baseball gods were not pleased with that. Hershiser walked the first two men in the seventh and abruptly left the game. Reliever Paul Assenmacher entered and walked pinch-hitter Mike Devereaux. Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove then brought in reliever Jesus Tavarez, a guy with the face of a gunsel in a hard-boiled detective novel. With the bases loaded, pinch hitter Luis Polonia grounded to Cleveland shortstop and defensive specialist Omar Vizquel. Now it was his turn to boot it, and he was lucky to get the force-out at second base as he bobbled the ball while stepping across the bag. Nevertheless, the run scored from third, and Belliard followed with an indefensible squeeze bunt to chase home the next runner at third. The Braves led 3-1 with Maddux on the mound, and in seven innings he hadn’t yet thrown 80 pitches.
When Lofton reached base with one out in the ninth, Maddux didn’t panic. He got the next batter to ground out. Lofton, who was going on the pitch, didn’t stop at second, and when McGriff tried to get him at third he threw the ball away, allowing Lofton to score. With the distraction effectively removed from the bases, Maddux got the next batter, Carlos Baerga, to pop up in front of the Cleveland dugout. Jones caught the ball in foul territory. Nine innings, 95 pitches–Don Larsen took 97 in his perfect game in the ’56 series–two hits, three base runners, and no earned runs. A victory in game one of the World Series.
What was Maddux’s response? Thus far, he has rejected all marketing opportunities, and he probably would even refuse an “I’m going to Disneyland” deal if he were to win another game (or two) to clinch the championship–unlike Hershiser, who jumped at such an offer in 1988. Maddux simply snapped his glove twice in Jones’s direction, calling for the ball. Then, with it stuck securely in the webbing of his mitt, he accepted and returned his teammates’ congratulations and left the field–there and not there, the epitome of baseball.