- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 10, 2004

“Unless former teammate Tom Glavine pours it on in the next few years, Maddux will be the last pitcher to win 300 games for a long, long time. Perhaps forever.” — Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“Greg Maddux is about to squeeze into the 300-win club and slam the door behind him.”

— Chicago Sun-Times

“[T]he 22nd, and perhaps last, 300-game winner in the major leagues …”

— Sports Illustrated

Stop, stop, stop. If there’s anything we’ve learned about athletes over the years, it’s that they don’t like to be told they can’t do something, whether it’s hitting 60 homers or winning three straight NBA titles or holding all four major golf championships at the same time. Suggest that a number is unreachable, that a feat is impossible, and they’ll find a way to prove you wrong — even if they have to take steroids to do it.

“Last” is a dangerous word for sportswriters to use, especially in Maddux’s case. After all, people have been proclaiming the death of the 300-game winner for ages. In 1941, when Lefty Grove notched No.300, Fred Lieb predicted in the Sporting News that Grove might be the last to reach the milestone. Nice try, Fred. Eleven pitchers won 300 games before Lefty, and 10 have won 300 since.

It was the same 22 years later, when Early Wynn joined the 300 Club. After Wynn’s historic victory, Bill James reminds us in his “Historical Baseball Abstract,” “somebody asked him if he was upset that Warren Spahn had beaten him to [it]. Not at all, said Wynn; he was delighted. Because Spahn got there first, he said, [Wynn] would always be the last pitcher to win 300 games.”

Wynn was only off by eight (so far).

The “experts” have wonderfully logical reasons for anointing Maddux “The Last.” They talk about the five-man rotation and the increasing use of bullpens and the offensive tilt of the game and blah, blah, blah. What they forget is that racking up 300 victories is a profoundly illogical achievement; it defies the laws of probability, the laws of physics (particularly those that apply to the shoulder and elbow areas) and even Vernon Law (who managed a mere 162 wins). A 300-game winner is a freak of nature, and every so often, whether we like it or not, our gene pool produces another one.

The “experts” are also leaving out what I like to call the Cool Hand Luke Factor. There will always be athletes who are oblivious to human limits, who will announce “I can eat 50 eggs” … and proceed to do just that. Three hundred pitching victories are the equivalent of 50 eggs. So is breaking Lou Gehrig’s consecutive-games record of 2,130. Andre Agassi won a tennis tournament over the weekend at 34, an age when most of us are starting to look like we’ve eaten 50 eggs. Who would have guessed he — or any other player these days — would have that kind of staying power?

It’s always a mistake to underestimate athletes. Yes, professional golf is extremely competitive, but that doesn’t mean Tiger Woods can’t become the first player in half a century to win six tourneys in a row. Yes, it’s harder to be a two-sport athlete now than in olden times, but that didn’t stop Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders from playing football and baseball — and it won’t stop the next Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders, either. (Though I doubt it will be Phil Mickelson, the would-be pitcher/hockey goalie.).

Who ever thought we’d see Walter Payton’s career rushing record broken anytime soon? Or Michael Jordan, pushing 40, come out of a three-year retirement and average almost 23 points in his first season? Or Pete Sampras stay interested long enough to win 14 Slams?

Athletes are forever surprising us — to such an extent that we shouldn’t be surprised anymore. Just because the scoring has dropped off in the NHL doesn’t mean there won’t be another 60-goal man. (Mario Lemieux was the last, in 1995-96.) Just because no starting pitcher has won three games in a World Series since 1968 doesn’t mean it’ll never happen again. (Curt Schilling pitched well enough to do it in 2001.)

And just because baseball has evolved the way it has doesn’t mean there won’t be another 300-game winner — perhaps a bunch of them. The thing that’s overlooked about Maddux is that he reached 300 with a minimum of spectacle. He’s never won more than 20 games in a season (and did that just twice). His trademark has been his consistency — 16 straight years (and counting) with 15 or more victories. What’s so impossible, even in this era, about winning 15, 16, 17, 18, 19 games year after year? The issue becomes one of longevity, not opportunity (which has been reduced by five-man rotations, etc.).

Greg Maddux won his 300th game. Hurray for him. But let’s not turn it into something it isn’t. Let’s not make him out to be the Last Woolly Mammoth. Another 300-game winner will come along sooner or later. And if you pay attention to sports history at all, you’ll put your money on sooner.

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