Harrison: We still are left to marvel at how Maddux became 'Rembrandt' - Albuquerque Journal

Harrison: We still are left to marvel at how Maddux became ‘Rembrandt’

The graying, bespectacled guy who came to Isotopes Park Wednesday in a ballcap, a golf shirt and shorts?

One of the dominant athletes of his generation.

Greg Maddux is a 6-foot, 56-year-old Everyman – his slightly deceptive “Mad Dog” nickname notwithstanding.

If you weren’t aware, you’d never guess. But man, if you ever knew, you know.

“He’s the Rembrandt of baseball,” former UNM coach Ray Birmingham said of the Hall of Fame pitcher who was in town on a promotional book tour.

“I’m a baseball purist. He has to be one of the best of all time. Maybe the best of all time.”

Randy Harrison

It’s important to note that the book tour Maddux came in for isn’t his own, which I’d buy. I’d like answers of how, other than mind-melding, in the heck did he do that? Play 23 years at the highest level of the hardest sport? Win 355 major league games? Four Cy Youngs? Eight All-Star nods, a World Series ring with the 1995 Atlanta Braves and a staggering 18 Gold Gloves? All the while possessing little more than a two-seam fastball that was as comfortable to hitters as the weather – as in, maybe reaching the high 80s – until they wore home the frustrating 0-fer.

The occasion instead was in support of “Grassroots Baseball: Route 66” – the brainchild of Jeff Idelson, former president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, and especially photographer Jean Fruth, whose compelling images of how the game is woven into the culture at points along America’s most fabled highway liberally grace what is a 254-page coffee table book.

It includes a thoughtful essay, essentially a love letter to his native New Mexico, by Houston Astros third baseman Alex Bregman – “such a terrific choice” to write about the Land of Enchantment, Fruth said. He gets his copy of the book next week.

Local fans were able to get pre-signed copies of the book (available at grassrootsbaseball.org) and photos with Maddux at Wednesday night’s Isotopes game vs. Salt Lake. Maddux threw out the first pitch – painting the corner of course.

Earlier in the day, he had lunch with Birmingham at the Range Cafe. And is there anybody out there Birmingham doesn’t know? He’s the guy in the photo with the pope and the first thought is, “Who’s that guy in the picture with Ray?”

Birmingham said over food, they covered “the state of baseball” but also other matters. Maddux’s son Chase, who pitched at UNLV, is soon to get married. Maddux’s daughter, like Birmingham, is heavily involved in a cancer foundation.

Maddux called the former Lobos coach “a special guy. Does a lot for the community, a lot for the kids. Been doing it a long time. You have lifers in baseball and I think he’s one of them.”

Birmingham’s tenure over the Lobos ended in 2021, and the Maddux connection included in part five years or so when he was an assistant coach at UNLV and made an annual trip to Albuquerque with those Rebels.

While he would still exercise that renowned right arm while coaching, Maddux says since he got out, his only throwing is “a fit on the golf course every so often.”

Maddux, who grew up in an Air Force family and went to high school in Las Vegas, Nevada, also was aware of the Lobos and Albuquerque even as a teen. He remembers UNLV-UNM basketball games that “always seemed to mean a lot back in the 1990s.”

Getting back to the book, it resonated with his sentimental side. Maddux said he was reminded of days as a boy when he played Wiffle ball in the corn fields on his grandparents’ farm in Indiana. And how life’s full circle came around to playing Wiffle ball on the California beach with his own son – just south of Santa Monica, where Route 66 dead-ends.

“It just brings back a lot of memories,” he said.

Whether you agree with Birmingham’s appraisal of Maddux may depend on your tastes in dominating hurlers. What’s not debatable is how nobody accomplished more with less – less overwhelming physical prowess. Less velocity. Less intimidation.

Athletes are “bigger, stronger faster than we were,” Maddux said. “They throw harder. But I think the same rule applies today as it did decades ago. It’s still going to be a pitching contest, and I think the pitcher that locates, changes speeds and keeps the ball in front of the outfield the best is the one that’s gonna win. Not necessarily the guy who throws the hardest.”

Apparently it is just that simple. For one seemingly ordinary guy, at least, who did extraordinary things.

‘TOPES THURSDAY: Vs. Salt Lake

6:35 p.m., Isotopes Park,

610 AM/95.9 FM

PROBABLES: Bees RHP Chris Daniel (3-1, 3.64) vs. Isotopes RHP Zach Neal (4-4, 6.93)

WEDNESDAY: The Isotopes hit a franchise record eight home runs after rallying from an early five-run deficit for a lopsided 20-8 win over visiting Salt Lake in front of an announced Isotopes Park crowd of 7,539. Albuquerque’s fourth win in a row also matches a season high. They are 28-34 on the season. Among the season high marks set in Wednesday’s offensive onslaught by the Isotopes: home runs (8), runs (20), extra-base hits (9) and runs scored in an inning (7). RF Ryan Vilade hit his first two home runs of the season and DH Sean Bouchard also had a pair of homers, his 10th and 11th on the season. He has six in the past nine games.

Box score: Albuquerque 20, Salt Lake 8

Updated Pacific Coast League standings here.

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