As a life long Chicago Cubs fan, I feel a profound sense of wonderment at the fact that my college years were bracketed by two of the best seasons for the Cubs during my life time. The 1984 season will always stand out most because it was so unexpected. Years and years of disappointment led me like so many other Cub fans to wonder whether they will ever win their division, let alone make it to the World Series.
It probably took until 1986 - two years, before I recovered from the stinging loss to the Padres. One freaking win is all they needed to make it to the Series after having won the first two games at home of what was then a five game NLCS. Back then there were only two divisions, one series to win before the World Series.
The fact that I now live in Detroit, where 1984 is fondly remembered as the last time the Tigers won the World Series does not help. For me, beyond 1984 being the year I graduated from high school, started college, and the Cubs won their division, I will always, always have nightmares of that ball going through Leon Durham's legs and Steve f'ing Garvey crushing home runs to help the Padres to sweep the Cubs at home.
My recovery from that bitter disappointment began in 1986 when the Cubs called up who I consider to be the best major league pitcher in my lifetime, Greg Maddux. His first two seasons were unremarkable, losing records and high ERAs in both, but in 1988 Maddux won 18 games and began a streak of 17 straight seasons of winning 15 or more games, the only pitcher in history to do so.
I graduated from Michigan Tech in 1989, and later in the fall of that year I moved to Southfield, MI, started my job with EDS (beginning my nearly 25 year career in IT), and watched the Cubs make it to the NLCS again, thanks in part to Greg Maddux. The 1989 team was not as dominant as the '84 team so it was not surprising that the Cubs only won one game of the seven game NLCS that year.
In 1992 Maddux won his first of four consecutive Cy Young awards, again the first pitcher in MLB with this achievement. Even more remarkable, during that four year streak Maddux had a 1.98 ERA, and allowed less than one run per inning.
1992 is also the absolute worst of mine as a Chicago Cubs fan as at the end of that season my favorite team lost the best pitcher of my lifetime to free agency. Maddux took his first Cy Young trophy to Atlanta and became the foundation for what many consider the best pitching staff in MLB during the 90s.
The fact that the Chicago Cubs, who is in one of the largest baseball markets in the country, could not put together the money to keep the best pitcher in baseball is astounding. It ruined the Cubs for nearly a decade, and highlighted the fact that the owners of the Cubs were simply not committed to winning.
It is not surprising that the best pitcher in baseball of my lifetime has been elected to the MLB Hall of Fame the first year he was on the ballot. I also see a major irony that he goes in to the hall during this season (2014) when baseball seems befuddled by the number of pitchers on the DL with Tommy John surgeries.
To say that baseball has changed in the last 20 years is a huge understatement. The grand old game now has instant replay! Amongst the changes is that baseball has become enchanted by the guy who can throw the ball 95 MPH or faster.
In my opinion, the move towards stocking a pitching staff with only pitchers who can throw the ball that fast is a product of short term, win now at all costs, thinking. Maddux, who was the best pitcher in baseball for nearly two decades, had a fastball in the low 90s. Would a MLB general manager of today consider Maddux to be their ace?
Greg Maddux is the best pitcher in my lifetime and is going in the Hall of Fame during an era when Major League Baseball is all about throwers. No where do I see this more plainly than with the Detroit Tigers. Why is it that Justin Verlander is struggling? Might it be that throwers can only throw the ball 95+ MPH for one or two seasons and then they are done?
It may be that one of the reasons for the shift to the "win now at all costs" mentality in MLB is the Atlanta Braves of the 90s, the same team anchored by Greg Maddux. Baseball looks back at those seasons and sees the Braves as a model of consistency, winning their division year after year, but only winning the World Series once.
Over looked, it seems, is the fact that you have to make it to the playoffs in order to have a chance to win a World Series. Clearly, your chances of winning the Series improve the more chances you have to play in it. Winning the Series provides a huge payout, but multiple series provides a larger payout. More importantly, consistently winning instills a culture of excellence and as a long suffering Cubs fan, I crave that culture almost as much as I crave the Cubs winning the World Series.
Congratulations Greg Maddux on your induction to the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. I fear that they don't make pitchers like you any more. Thank you for your seasons with the Cubs. Thank you for being a fantastic pitcher, and a tremendous baseball player. When I think of a major league pitcher, I think of Greg Maddux.