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HARRIS: By any measure, Greg Maddux worthy of unanimous praise

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Greg Maddux headlines the baseball Hall of Fame class announced Wednesday, which shouldn't come as any kind of surprise. He'll go in this summer along with former Atlanta Braves teammate Tom Glavine and former Chicago White Sox slugger Frank Thomas.

It's a fine, worthy class. You can make cases for a number of others but the three who definitely belong in got in the Hall.

The only real question lingering over the process is how 16 of the 571 voters could leave Maddux off their ballot.

If ever a player defines Hall of Famer, it is Maddux. While he might not compare image-wise to a Michael Jordan in basketball or Jerry Rice in football, he was every bit as top-tier in his sport. He wasn't fancy. He wasn't flashy. He wasn't an outsized personality. He was merely the best pitcher of his generation and one of the best pitchers ever.

In a long career that has involved watching a lot of sports on a lot of levels, Maddux is easily one of the top three performers ever witnessed. Sports writers are often asked, who would you pay to see? Maddux. Repeatedly. He was that good.

A few numbers for those unfamiliar with his work: A 355-227 record over 23 seasons. Seventeen straight seasons with at least 15 victories. A seven-season stretch where his highest earned run average was 2.72. Back-to-back seasons in Atlanta where he went a combined 35-8 with ERAs of 1.56 and 1.63. From the time he was 22 until the time he was 40, he pitched at least 200 innings every year but one. That season, he missed by two-thirds of an inning.

He won the Cy Young Award four years in a row. He won 18 Gold Gloves.

Remarkable excellence for a very long time.

You look at those numbers and, without an image of Maddux, might conjure up a vision of a menancing, intimidating presence like 6-foot-11 Randy Johnson, who could unleash the pitch in a wild flurry of arms, legs and long hair. Or of a steely-gazed Roger Clemens and his overpowering fastball.

Nope. Maddux is listed at 6-foot and 170-pounds, which frankly seems to be a slight exaggeration. When he wore his glasses on non-pitching days, he looked more like your local Eagle Scout than a dominating athlete.

Someone on every team he pitched probably had a better fastball, a better curve, a better change, a better slider. But nobody had a more complete repertoire of pitches or a fast-working brain that allowed him to stay a step ahead of almost every hitter.

Don Sutton, another Hall of Fame pitcher who spent the Maddux years in Atlanta as a broadcaster, summed him up as well as anybody.

Maddux, Sutton said, "can hit a gnat in the butt from 60 feet with four different pitches."

You combine that kind of arsenal with Maddux's mind and you get a Hall of Famer, a guy who was a favorite of writers on deadline because games he started tended to end in closer to two hours than three.

Around the media, Maddux was polite and available though far from expansive. He knew he was darn good. You don't post the numbers he did for as long as he did without having an incredible level of confidence. But he never passed himself off as anything special.

He practically bristled at the suggestion he was some sort of baseball savant, a fanatic with his preparation. The idea of Maddux with complex charts and graphs and assorted other information was false.

"It's more knowing a little about the opposition," Maddux said in a 1995 interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, "and knowing a lot about yourself."

Maddux didn't dominate in the postseason like he did in the regular season, though much of that is a function of the way his team was playing rather than the way he was pitching. He played in 23 postseason series in his career and never won more than a game in any of them. His postseason record was a pedestrian 11-14. But his postseason ERA of 3.24 is only a tick higher than his career ERA of 3.16. Heck, he was 0-2 in a 1997 series against the eventual World Series champion Marlins despite giving up just two earned runs in 13 innings.

Sure, a couple more championship rings would have added to the legend. Maddux pitched in three World Series (1995, 1996 and 1999) and the Braves won just one of them (1995). Maddux played with three other teams — the Cubs, Dodgers and Padres — and none made it to the Series.

But a lack of rings shouldn't detract from what Maddux did so well for so very long. Few people have a career in any sport that screams Hall of Famer as loudly as Maddux's did.

That he's in the Hall is appropriate. That he isn't unanimous is baffling.

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