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Columnist
Cubs, fans send Maddux off in style
By Barry Rozner | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 5/16/2008 12:12 AM

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Just another game.

That's what Greg Maddux called it a couple hours before he departed the Padres' clubhouse for the field Thursday morning.

Just another game. Just trying to make pitches.

If you wonder how a guy like Maddux, with an 85-mph fastball, wins 350 games in the big leagues, it's at least in part because of the way he approaches every pitch and every start, whether it's a Tuesday in Florida, the World Series -- or his final start ever at Wrigley Field.

"I think what impresses me the most is the work he puts into his game, and the repetition between starts,'' said Padres manager Bud Black, himself a winner of 121 major-league games. "He's gifted with an arm angle that allows him to throw a game on the side as if he's facing the next team, while most guys are sore and just going through the motions between starts.

"I think what gets overlooked is his dedication to his craft. He doesn't want credit, so he jokes about it, but he's very serious.

"He's also a great athlete, so if something is off just a hair, he knows it and adjusts because he's dialed into whatever he's doing.

"You hear stories from the back of the plane about card games and what he does to guys. He has an ability to read people and to concentrate for as long as he needs, whether it's baseball or cards or golf. Other guys drift off and lose focus. He's right there.''

Black is convinced Maddux could pitch another five years if he wanted, but at this point, barring an unforeseen change, Maddux will call it a career this season.

"I think about how much better I would have been if I had pitched with him,'' said Black, who at 50 is only eight years his senior. "Greg joins a team and you see the other starters doing things he does without him saying a word.''

It's not much of a coincidence that Jake Peavy went from 11-14 and a guy with great stuff and unlimited potential to 19-6 and a Cy Young Award during his first year with Maddux.

"I can't put into words how much it's meant having him around,'' Peavy said. "Of course, he wants no credit, so he'll say he never threw a pitch for you, but when he leaves the game, he'll leave with more knowledge than any 25 guys you could put in a room.''

He'll also leave as the best pitcher of the last half-century -- some say century -- and with a legion of admirers.

"I'm not ashamed to say I love Greg Maddux,'' said Cubs GM Jim Hendry. "As good a pitcher as he is, maybe the best ever, he's a better person. I was really hoping today he'd get a no-decision and we'd win the game.''

The Cubs did win the game, but Maddux suffered an unceremonious defeat, looking on as Cubs fans gave Jim Edmonds an ovation for putting on a uniform, and booing him an hour later for hitting into a double play.

"I thought this was the 'Friendly Confines,' " said seventh-inning singer Phil Donahue. "The poor fella just got here.''

It's pretty simple, folks. The Cubs will keep Edmonds around as long as he has a breath to breathe, and if he fails, he'll be gone just as quickly as he got here, all for the price of a bus ticket.

It's really no big deal, yet the Edmonds nonsense overshadowed another brilliant outing from Ryan Dempster, who's having a fabulous season.

"I was really looking forward to this,'' Dempster said. "(Maddux) is probably the greatest teammate I ever had.''

Like so many others, Dempster's doing everything he can to pay tribute to Maddux by imitating him.

"Just his ability to take it one pitch at a time. No matter what the situation, just keep trying to execute pitches,'' Dempster said. "Take pride in fielding your position, getting a bunt down, whatever you can to try to win a ballgame. He's won 350 of them, and he didn't do it with just pitching. He did it being a baseball player."

The admiration hardly ended there. After he spent the week saying goodbye to Wrigley Field, and the faithful who have made it feel like home to him for so many years, it was the fans' opportunity to say their own farewell Thursday.

After being removed in the bottom of fifth, Maddux (4 runs, 11 hits) kicked the dirt, looked at the scoreboard, and cursed into his glove, then walked slowly toward the dugout, as 40,015 rose as one to thank Maddux for the good times, and acknowledge a remarkable career.

"I appreciate it. I really do. But I was kind of (bleeped) off at the time,'' Maddux chuckled. "The fans here are great, and they're a huge part of Wrigley Field. I appreciate what they did. I'm sure I'll never forget that. I just feel bad I didn't pitch well.''

The fans Thursday understood what most do today, that while he's not the Maddux of 1998, what Maddux has accomplished into 2008 isn't just once in a generation, or once in a lifetime.

It might be once in a century -- and he did it clean.

Yes, the cynics will dismiss anything that isn't negative, and the fanatics will deplore a few minutes dedicated to anything that doesn't canonize the men in blue, but even the Cubs themselves believe it's not hyperbole to wonder if they have seen for the last time one of the top five pitchers in the 130-year history of professional baseball.

"I'll never forget my time around him, and I know our guys feel that way,'' Hendry said. "Someday, people are going to ask you, and you're going to be able to say, 'I saw Greg Maddux pitch.'

"That's how special he is. That's history right there. And I just can't imagine the game without him.''

Truer words weren't spoken Thursday.