When you work in baseball, especially in cold weather cities, these are the four words you longed for every off-season:
Pitchers and Catchers Report.
No matter what you really thought about your team’s chances, the slate was mentally swept clean every off-season. Through the cold and the snow, you convince yourself … Who knows, we really did improve. Don’t let last year’s 72-90 mark fool you. We’re much better this season.
Look, even during my time with the Cubs, that “Pitchers and Catchers Report” mantra worked. The 1998 postseason run came directly off a 68-94 campaign in 1997. The 2003 division title came after a 67-95 season. The back-to-back 2007-2008 playoff appearances were preceded by a less than fun-filled 66-96 season.
But what happens when pitchers and catchers report, but THE PITCHER wasn’t there.
I beat Greg Maddux to the major leagues by a few months. I “got the call” when I was hired by Ned Colletti as a media relations intern, and I started in June 1986. In September, the 20-year-old Maddux made his major league debut, and I was a witness inputting play-by-play in the press box. Maddux entered a game against Houston in the 18th inning. After retiring Craig Reynolds, he surrendered a homer to Billy Hatcher and took the loss in an inauspicious 8-7 decision. He made his first big league start a few days later and, in typical Maddux fashion, went the distance for his first big league win.
A down-to-earth guy with a warped – bordering on sick – sense of humor, I had a front row seat to the beginning stages of his Hall of Fame career, which included the typical learning curve for a young major league pitcher. There was a point in time that he struggled, and he did go back to the minors for a bit to work on his craft out of the public eye.
After the 1989 season, he was arbitration-eligible for the first time. The following January, I was with Greg on a Cubs Caravan – a goodwill bus trip (run by the media relations office) to multiple metropolitan areas throughout Illinois, parts of Indiana and as far west as the Quad Cities Iowa/Illinois border.
On this trip, Greg and I wandered to the back of the bus – and the topic of arbitration came up. He started asking questions about it. While not an expert on the subject, I could speak to it – as I had already done some money related projects. All Greg knew was that he wanted what was fair. He had made $275,000 in 1989, and he thought a bump to $450,000 would be fair.
After a bit of contentious negotiating that month, he would get a 1990 contract of $437,500. It was the last time Greg wasn’t in control of his financial future. And receiving even a few pennies less than he thought was fair was something he didn’t dismiss.
Big 1990 and 1991 seasons saw his annual salary increase to $2.4 million and $4.2 million – which brings us to 1992. That year, in his “Age 26” season, it all came together for him. He had his first 20-win season … he had a 2.18 ERA … he allowed only 7 homers in 268.0 innings, pitching half his games at Wrigley Field … and he easily won his first Cy Young Award.
Greg and his wife, Kathy, were in Chicago for the Cy Young announcement. After all the handshaking and interviews and pomp and circumstance that goes into these events, it was my job to get them back to O’Hare Airport.
Being the nice guy that I was, I asked if they wanted to stop anywhere to get something to eat. Mad Dog being Mad Dog, he said the McDonald’s drive-through across from the ballpark would be good for them.
Leaving the drive-through lane, I made a right turn onto Clark Street before another quick right onto Addison. And then I heard those fateful words that made me cringe: “Don’t look now, but the ballpark is in the rearview mirror.”
For the next few minutes, I was the quiet designated driver just listening in on a husband-and-wife talking about their future. This was really heady stuff for me, listening to a star pitcher with a huge baseball life in front of him. And there was nothing I could do other than listen to them talk.
“You know, this might be it.”
“I really like it here.”
“We’ll like it wherever we go.”
“You’ve always said we’ll be happy wherever we’re wanted.”
“We both know we just want what’s fair.”
This was never going to be about “what’s fair.” This was going to be about getting the absolute largest contract that his agent, Scott Boras, could get.
Prior to the 1992 season, Larry Himes was named the Cubs’ general manager. Over the course of his first year, numerous on-field staff, minor league coaches and scouts were politely asked to find other jobs. There was a whole lot of stuff going on. But during the ’92-’93 off-season, I was naïve enough to think my bosses would come to their senses and retain Greg Maddux’s services.
Seriously, he just won the Cy Young. He was 26 years old. He never missed his turn due to injuries. And, for crying out loud, everyone knew that money didn’t affect him. His salary grew from major league minimum to $4.2 million – yet he was the same guy. Go ahead and blame Himes – you have every right – but the Cubs’ negotiating team pre-dating Himes botched it up every step of the way, too.
There had been an attempt to sign Maddux long-term during the All-Star break, but the two sides couldn’t come close to an agreement. Greg then went out and had a great second half, earning the first of his four consecutive Cy Youngs.
And now here we were, on the way to the airport.
Finally, I got “the word” that it was time for me to be included in their conversation.
“So,” Mad Dog said. “Who do you think they’re going to get to replace me?”
He wasn’t laughing. He asked it in a serious tone.
I told him I was keeping my fingers crossed that things could work out … that he wasn’t replaceable … that if he and Kathy wanted to stay in Chicago, that I knew things would work out. I told you I was naïve. I also said that if he wasn’t back, it would take a bunch of guys to replace him – not just one.
And he said something like “You never know.”
It was too bad, because I know the money for him wasn’t the issue. It was fairness. He wanted what he thought was a fair offer. Heck, he went on to sign for less money with the Braves than the Yankees offered because he felt more comfortable with the situation he would be going into in Atlanta. Remember, this is someone who still eats and thinks and acts the same way he did as a 20-year-old rookie.
When pitchers and catchers reported to camp in February 1993, Greg Hibbard had been added to the pitching staff via trade. Jose Guzman, Dan Plesac and Randy Myers were signed as free agents.
But Greg Maddux wasn’t there. Going to spring training that February just wasn’t the same.