As it happens, I have a more-than-the-usual-passing interest in the goings-on at the Baseball Hall of Fame this year. My oldest friend (I say we met in kindergarten, though he seems to think it was 1st grade), Eric Nadel, who has spent the last 30 years or so down in Texas as the voice of the Texas Rangers, is being given the Ford Frick award — in essence, selection to the broadcaster’s “wing” of the HOF. A really terrific honor, putting him in some very illustrious company, including Mel Allen, Red Barber, Vin Scully, Lindsey Nelson, and other icons of our youth, and I’ll be heading up to Cooperstown this July (along with about 100 or so of Eric’s friends and family) for the festivities.
So I paid some attention to the recent news about this year’s inductees on the ballplayer side: Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and Frank Thomas, and I stumbled across Tom Boswell’s magnificent piece on Maddux in the Wash. Post. Maddux is surely one of the most interesting ballplayers ever. He seems to be one of those people who has the kind of internal constitution that would have enabled him to be really, really great at anything to which he devoted himself. He figured pitching out: hitters can pick up the spin of the ball, and the location of the ball, but they cannot pick up the ball’s relative velocity (without cues from spin or location). So then he worked and worked and worked and worked to implement that simple principle — making all of his pitches, in Maddux’s own words, look “like a column of milk” – surely one of the best sports similes ever coined by a ballplayer.
And Boswell tells this story at the end. Maddux’s father, who worked as a dealer in the Las Vegas casinos:
explained there were basic rules for a dealer: when to take a hit and when to hold. He simply had to do what he’d been taught. The odds were in favor of the casino, “the house.” Dad might have a bad night or bad week, but he told his son “in the end, the house always wins.”
. . . Behind every Maddux success was his utter confidence that, with a selection of masterfully controlled pitches that looked identical until the last second, hitters were fundamentally and forever at such a basic disadvantage that he was in complete command of his long-term fate. “My dad never worried. He was ‘the house,’ ” Maddux said.
After a nice little pause, a slight change of speeds, his sly hole-card grin snuck out.
“I am the house,” he said.
Now, that is a pretty powerful parable, if you ask me. ”I am the house”! He actually knew he would prevail, because he was “the house” – the odds were actually tilted in his favor. And so he did. No wonder those hitters ended up shaking their heads in dismay. It was a beautiful thing to watch Maddux pitch, and now I sort of understand why.