It’s one of those ‘what if’ moments that you can find littered throughout baseball history. On the heels of a 20-victory, NL Cy Young-winning 1992 campaign, contract talks between the Cubs and Greg Maddux imploded and the right-hander packed his bags for Atlanta on a five-year pact.
Over those next five seasons, Maddux was nothing short of masterful, winning three consecutive Cy Young Awards (making it four straight when combined with the one he won with Chicago), making 157 starts and working to a 2.13 ERA in the process. He won a Gold Glove in each of those campaigns and wound up re-upping with the Braves, spending a total of 11 years with Atlanta.
After the Cubs fell five outs short of the World Series in 2003, the front office went out and attempted to right a longstanding wrong by signing the now-38-year-old Maddux. He brought one of the most impressive resumes in the history of the game to a pitching staff that already boasted the likes of Mark Prior, Kerry Wood and Carlos Zambrano.
Even at his advanced age, Maddux showed he still had something left in the tank, winning 16 games in his first season back on the North Side, winning the 300th game of his career in August against the Giants. He racked up a staggering 212 2/3 innings – continuing a stretch where he surpassed the 200-inning mark in 18 of 19 seasons from 1988 to 2006. The one year he failed to hit that mark? He missed it by just two-thirds of an inning, finishing the 2002 campaign with 199 1/3 innings pitched.
The return of Maddux wasn’t enough to push the Cubs back into the postseason, with Chicago finishing at 89-73, good for third in the NL Central. In 2005, history was constantly made by the wily veteran – but no instance was more noted than his 3,000th strikeout in late July.
With the punchout, as you can hear over the PA system in the clip, he became just the second pitcher to record his 3,000th strikeout as a member of the Cubs and the first pitcher in baseball history with at least 300 wins, 3,000 strikeouts and fewer than 1,000 walks. The man was an artist, a perfectionist – a true master of control.
Chicago Cubs: The beginning of the end for Greg Maddux
That year, despite his historic achievements, marked Maddux’s first losing record season since 1987. Even so, at 39 years of age, he led the league, making 35 starts, won a Gold Glove and amassed 225 innings in the middle of the Cubs rotation.
Ahead of the trade deadline in 2006, Maddux was sent to the Dodgers in a trade for infielder Cesar Izturis. His 4.69 ERA in 22 starts might make you think he’d lost his touch, but his 3.80 FIP and 3.52 strikeout-to-walk ratio suggest otherwise. Was he still the dominant presence he was in Atlanta? No. But he still had something to offer on a big league mound.
Looking back, it’s worth thinking about what some of those Cubs teams led by Sammy Sosa could have done with Maddux atop the rotation. The 1998 season could have been something altogether different. Heck, maybe he’d have been enough to get Chicago past the Marlins in that fateful 2003 NLCS. One thing’s for sure, though. Mad Dog was one of the best to ever do it – and seeing him, even later in his career, return to Chicago, was something special.