31 Days to Opening Days and it’s not really that hard to think of greatness when you think of number 31 in Chicago – especially on the mound.
I mean, there was a guy who wore 31 on the North Side that won 20 or more games in six consecutive seasons with the Cubs. A guy who won a Cy Young Award in a season in which he lost 13 games – but also threw 30 complete games. A guy who won double-digit games for the Cubs in parts of three separate decades. Of course, we all know that’s Fergie Jenkins.
And, he’s not even the best pitcher the Cubs have had with the number 31.
That distinction belongs to a guy whom I always thought would show up to the team late each season because he was too busy doing other people’s taxes. He looked like an accountant – and he approached the art of pitching with the knowledge of a brainiac. Greg Maddux wasn’t the hardest thrower, the biggest or strongest guy, or even the most athletic guy. But, he was the smartest guy to take the mound at Wrigley in all its’ years – and he was most likely the best, too.
Jenkins racked up stats and wins like a craps dealer with that plastic “arm” they use to gather all of my lost bets. If Jenkins was the dealer at the table, Maddux was the pit boss. He knew everything that was going on at all times. He not only knew how to get you out – he knew how to get you out the way he needed to. In other words, if he needed an out in the form of a fly ball to left – he could make that happen. If he wanted you to ground out to second, you may as well write “4-3″ in your scorebook ahead of time. And, use pen. He was that good.
First pitch of the at-bat, or ninth pitch after fouling some off – he’d get you one way or another. That’s why he won 13 or more games for 18 consecutive seasons. Honestly, think about that. Your son is born and that year Greg Maddux wins at least 13 games. Next thing you know, you’re sending your kid off to college – and Maddux is winning at least 13 games again. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Maddux won four straight Cy Young Awards from 1992-1995. His season in 1996 was so bad at 15-11 that he fell all the way to fifth in Cy Young voting. Seriously, a season in which the guy had an ERA of 2.77 was one that was considered a bad year. And talk about a freak of nature: over 200 innings pitched in 14 consecutive seasons. Pitch count? We don’t need your stinkin’ pitch count.
Certain guys come along that you just don’t miss seeing when they are on the mound. Nolan Ryan was one of those guys. Randy Johnson. You didn’t miss those guys pitch because of their raw power and ability to blow right through a lineup. Maddux you didn’t miss because you wanted to see just how silly he could make big league hitters look. His efficiency made you wonder if he always had a plane to catch. His games were dramatically shorter and, quite frankly, more interesting.
I actually never saw Maddux pitch live, but I did see Jenkins in his final season in 1983. In San Diego, he gave up a first-inning grand slam to Tim Flannery of all people. I was 12 years old, so I knew I was seeing a legend at the end of the rope. Jenkins left the game after only one inning. So, I got to see him pitch one inning – and it was most likely the worst inning of his career. I remember it like it was yesterday and I will never forget it.
That was – you guessed it – 31 years ago. From a young Fergie Jenkins in the late 1960s to a mature Greg Maddux in the 21st century, 31 is a number Cub fans will always have a soft spot for.