Out there. Out on the wall. Out alongside Aaron and Mathews and Murphy and Niekro and Spahn, for heaven’s sake.
Greg Maddux talks of it as some sort of surreal moment, like if you arrived home for dinner one night and five Academy Award winners were chatting up new summer flicks. Like if you walked in to greet the family and Tom Hanks was asking Sean Penn at one end of the table how much he laughed during “Bruno,” while Daniel Day-Lewis chewed on some pasta at the other.
“A great honor,” Maddux said. “Very humbling.”
This is what happens on the way to Cooperstown for those destined to be invited. This is as much part of the journey as cruising down Route 80. This is what occurs between a Hall of Fame baseball career and being presented your bronze plaque in central New York, between compiling the kind of numbers that have allowed fewer than 2 percent of all major leaguers to be inducted and deciding whom to thank first during your speech.
It’s the appetizer portion of the voyage, but tastes pretty sweet all the same.
The fact Maddux will be honored in Atlanta on Friday by having his jersey retired and welcomed into the team’s Hall of Fame is as expected as the humidity sweating the bun off your Georgia dog.
In May, Maddux had his jersey retired by the Chicago Cubs, meaning the No. 31 is falling around the majors like housing prices nationwide.
“It’s an opportunity to go back and see friends, people you haven’t seen in a few years,” Maddux said. “Old neighbors, clubhouse kids, the team doctor, Bobby Cox, Chipper (Jones), who I think might be the last player left from when I was there. It will be good to see him again. Being away from friends like that makes you realize how fun playing the game was.”
There have been few surprises since that afternoon in December inside a Bellagio ballroom at baseball’s winter meetings, since the finest pitcher of his generation decided 23 years and 355 wins and four Cy Young awards and 18 Gold Gloves made a fairly compelling statement.
Maddux retired knowing he could have offered serviceable numbers as a fourth or fifth starter this season, that he could have more often than not continued sending hitters back to the dugout wrapped in bundles of exasperation.
But it was a truth not as attractive as another for the former Valley High School pitcher, for the first time in what seemed like forever being able to spend his days with family, to again know Las Vegas in the summer on a daily basis, to finally complete the circle and stay home.
He probably pitched some batting practice in the last week. Hit some infield. Offered a little advice when approached. The arm feels good. The elbow isn’t on fire. Baseball hasn’t changed, just those he is experiencing it with.
In this case, a group of 12-year-olds. When you think he spent some time with the Padres, it’s sort of an upgrade.
“I’ve probably seen all 12 kids smile in the last week,” Maddux said of the players on his son’s team. “That’s the most important part. Let’s not kid ourselves — most kids don’t grow up to be major leaguers, so it’s that much more important for them to enjoy baseball now.
“It might not be played exactly the same way — the bases are a little shorter, the game is a little slower — but it’s still baseball. You still see good plays being made and errors and good decisions and bad decisions. It’s still a beautiful game and a great way to spend your time, sitting next to other parents and talking baseball and other things.”
He is also teaching his teenage daughter to drive, so you figure any adrenaline or nervous energy he might have lost from baseball has been suitably replaced and then some. There has been golf. Lots of it.
But major league baseball should hope one day that Maddux again puts on a No. 31 jersey and acts as some team’s pitching coach. He has said the thought intrigues him. It’s easy to see why.
It was what he did off the mound — this ability to tutor young minds and offer invaluable counsel on how to pitch — that proved almost as helpful as anything he did on it his final seasons. That kind of knowledge for any team is like a 10-game lead in August. Immeasurable.
For now, though, the journey toward Cooperstown in 2014 will take its necessary stops, such as the one Friday when a team for which Maddux pitched 11 seasons places his number alongside five other illustrious stars.
Aaron. Mathews. Murphy. Niekro. Spahn.
And now Maddux.
One heck of a dinner table.
“It’s pretty cool,” he said. “It’s not something you really spend a lot of time thinking about doing. You have blinders on while you are playing because you don’t want to take away from anything happening on the field. It’s almost like you have a crash helmet on and don’t hear anything that is being said because you have a routine and need to stick to it.
“But it went by really fast for me — 23 years and it’s over. It’s just a tremendous honor, something that five to 10 years down the road I can go back to stadiums and see my number up there.”
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at 702-383-4618 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He also can be heard weeknights from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. on “The Sports Scribes” on KDWN (720 AM).