MESA, Ariz. -- What is eight across?
That's pretty much what Greg Maddux is concerned with right now. At his locker. Feet up. Crossword puzzle from the morning newspaper in hand. Eight across. Or 10 down. Or one of them.
"Stuck," he says.
Presumably, the question stumping him has nothing to do with how many victories stand between Maddux and the historic 300-win club (11). Or with how many consecutive seasons he has won at least 15 games (16 summers and counting). Or with naming the last pitcher before him to compile 13 consecutive winning seasons (Bob Gibson).
|Greg Maddux is striving for his 17th straight season with at least 15 victories.(AP)|
"That's just the way the game is."
Presumably, too, the question stumping him has nothing to do with when the Chicago Cubs last had back-to-back winning seasons (1971-1972). Or when they last played in a World Series (1945). Or the name of the fan who knocked that foul ball away from Moises Alou in the stands during last October's star-crossed National League Championship Series (Steve, ah, forget it).
Baseball's most laid-back 289-game winner might be back where he started, preparing to pitch for the Cubs for the first time since 1992, but the interesting thing is, in the middle of the boiling passion ushering in perhaps the most anticipated season ever on Chicago's North Side, Maddux's resting pulse remains ... sloooow.
Really, on this morning, at this moment, what he'd like is to finish his crossword puzzle. And leave the heavy breathing for later.
"I really don't feel any different," says Maddux, who signed a three-year deal with the Cubs on Feb. 18. "I expected that. I expected to maybe feel different. Rejuvenated.
"But I'm just as excited this spring as I was last spring, instead of being more excited, like I thought. Probably because I've been here before. Some of the same people are still around. It's not a totally new team.
"There are still a couple of things the same. A couple of things."
Now the Cubs, and people around the Cubs, feel totally different. Climbing to within five outs of the World Series and then adding a Maddux to a knockout rotation that starts with Mark Prior and Kerry Wood and continues on to Matt Clement and Carlos Zambrano will do that to an organization, to a community.
When the Cubs put single-game tickets on sale last week, fans snapped up nearly 600,000 on the very first day. That more than doubled the club's previous one-day record. Cubs president Andy MacPhail says he has never seen a city as baseball crazed as Chicago currently is -- including the Twin Cities in 1988, following Minnesota's stunning '87 World Series victory.
Which, uh, makes a guy wonder what might happen if, instead of stepping to that next elite level this summer, the Cubs return to simply being the Cubs. Can there be such a thing as too much excitement surrounding a team?
"Not where I come from," manager Dusty Baker says. "I don't think you can ever have too much excitement. It's better to have too much than too little."
Far as Baker is concerned, bring on the high expectations.
"It doesn't matter to me," he says. "You can't control it. The only thing you can control is what happens on the field. That other stuff is a waste of time.
"Don't you think it's about time people had something to be excited about? Hopefully, that translates to a great home-field advantage and energy for us."
As if they weren't excited enough in Chicago as spring neared, the late-winter signing of Maddux helped put things over the top. Especially with NL Central division rival Houston having added Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens.
At 37, Maddux is past his prime, but he's still smart enough and analytical enough to milk more Hall of Fame outings than he probably should given his pedestrian fastball.
"I still believe if you do everything mechanically correct, it's impossible for the ball to not go where you want it to," Maddux says. "Like in golf. If your swing is mechanically correct, the ball is going to go where it should -- or, at least, where you're aiming.
"Things will change, and your mind will do things funky that you don't want it to do."
Maddux wrestled with that for much of the first half of last season. In the end, he went 16-11 with a 3.96 ERA, but that started with a 7-8, 4.63 clunker in the season's first half. Some speculated that Maddux didn't have anything left. Others targeted QuesTec, baseball's computerized umpire evaluation system. To survive, the theory went, Maddux needs lenient umpires. And with QuesTec breathing down their necks, the umps weren't giving Maddux strikes two inches off the plate.
"I'll tell you this: QuesTec had nothing to do with it. It wasn't the balls I was throwing outside of QuesTec," Maddux says, referring to the area outside of the strict strike zone. "It was the balls I was throwing inside of QuesTec. I didn't pitch good."
Still, going good or going poorly, Maddux, as usual, did it quickly. Throw the ball in the strike zone, let them hit it. Maddux led the NL in pitches thrown per batter (3.26) and fewest walks per nine innings (1.4).
"You win, you're economical, you lose, you're throwing too many strikes," he says, chuckling. "You know, whatever. Whatever they want to say. Go ahead."
None of it, good or bad, bothers Maddux. Never has. One of his gifts, aside from pinpoint accuracy, is the ability to break things down and keep them simple.
"I try to worry about enjoying the day, and doing what I want to do," Maddux says. "Do what I can to help myself, and do what I can to help the team. If I can do that, I'm content with that. If I (tee) somebody off along the way, I apologize. It wasn't personal. I wasn't trying to. But I'm not going to worry about it."
Maddux and the Cubs are still in the kicking-the-tires stage with each other. The season will pull them toward a momentum all of its own, and soon. Right now, during the breaking-in process, it's all about space. Maddux isn't interested in forcing his views and thoughts on a young -- though established -- rotation. And for their part, guys such as Prior, Wood and Clement don't want to crowd Maddux by constantly quizzing him.
"It's still so early," Clement says. "It would be unfair to him. He's here to pitch. He's not here to coach."
Still, during brief asides and comments, Maddux's genius is apparent.
"He can see things that I think most normal pitchers, players and coaches can't see," Clement says. "I think we'll be able to use that during the season."
No small part of Maddux's success is that he remains as inquisitive today as when he first broke in with the Cubs in 1986. While he became identified with pitching coach Leo Mazzone in Atlanta, Maddux has enjoyed becoming acquainted with Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild.
"Once you've had the same pitching coach for three or four years, it's nice to get different opinions," Maddux says. "Take some things Leo taught you and maybe add to that. That was one of the things I liked my first few years in Chicago. I had (three) pitching coaches.
"I like the different opinions. It's all about getting as much information as you can, and then seeing what works best for you."
It's an interesting take, because how many times have you heard some underachiever complain about change. You know, the old, "I've had five managers in five years, how do they expect me to succeed here?" complaint.
Maybe what it comes down to in the end is that if a guy keeps his mind both open and sharp, it gives him a distinct advantage.
"Coaches, if they tell you 10 things, one or two maybe will work," Maddux says. "Very rarely will all 10 things work for everybody. I see it. I've worked with kids before. You tell one kid the same thing you told another kid yesterday, and the kid yesterday didn't get it but the kid today does.
"I do it with my own kids with their math homework. I tell them one way, and they have no clue. I tell them another way, and they get it. Pitching is no different."
It's all part of putting the puzzle together. See if one word fits, scrap it when it doesn't, see if a different set of letters will work. Maddux has built a career on it. The Cubs, meanwhile, well, they mostly haven't been able to solve eight across, or 10 down, or whatever it is, since 1945.
Maybe Maddux can help.
Miller's previous camping stops: Angels in Tempe | Marlins in Jupiter | Reds in Sarasota, Indians in Winter Haven | Cardinals in Jupiter | Mets in Port St. Lucie | Dodgers in Vero Beach | Orioles in Fort Lauderdale | Expos in Viera | Braves in Kissimmee | Tigers in Lakeland | Pirates in Bradenton | Devil Rays in St. Petersburg | Blue Jays in Dunedin | Twins in Fort Myers | Red Sox in Fort Myers | Yankees in Tampa | Astros in Kissimmee | Phillies in Clearwater | Red Sox in Fort Myers