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Letting Maddux go as free agent still haunts Cubs

“He made difference for Braves it killed Cubs.”
— Jim Hendry Greg Maddux signing with Braves after 1992 season

“He made the difference for the Braves, and it killed the Cubs.” — Jim Hendry, on Greg Maddux signing with the Braves after the 1992 season

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Updated: January 9, 2014 6:12PM

The first game Greg Maddux pitched after winning the 1992 Cy Young Award for the Cubs was a 1-0 victory on Opening Day at Wrigley Field in which he pitched into the ninth inning.

To beat the Cubs.

For more than two decades, it was the most succinct way to sum up one of the worst management decisions in a Cubs history full of bad ones.

Until Wednesday. Until Maddux was introduced as the head of the 2014 class of Hall of Fame inductees — named on 97.2 percent of ballots, the eighth-highest percentage in history.

That Maddux will be enshrined at Cooperstown with a bronzed Atlanta Braves cap on his plaque is one more reminder for Cubs faithful of why the Braves won every division title in his 11-year Braves career. Why the Cubs had six losing seasons in the same stretch.

And why four management regimes later the Cubs still are trying to change the “culture” and inertia of a 105-year stretch of baseball that by August will be as well-defined by the Hall of Fame plaques of Maddux and Lou Brock (in a St. Louis Cardinals cap) as the absence of championship hardware.

“He individually completely changed two organizations,” former Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said of Maddux, whom he signed back to the Cubs’ rotation as a free agent in 2004 and later hired as a special assistant in the front office.

“He made the difference for the Braves [becoming the dominant team of the ’90s], and it killed the Cubs.”

Maddux was everything for the Braves the Cubs have failed to find since in guys such as injury-plagued aces Kerry Wood and Mark Prior and big-ticket bust Carlos Zambrano.

He followed up the ’92 Cy Young by winning the next three as well, capping off that four-year run with the 1995 World Series title the latest ownership and management team is suggesting will come with the development of a Javy Baez-Albert Almora-Kris Bryant core — with no clear sign of when or who will be pitching.

What made Maddux’s departure as a free agent at age 26 worse than the infamous 1964 trade of young Lou Brock to the Cardinals for broken-down pitcher Ernie Broglio was that GM Larry Himes knew exactly what he had in Maddux when he let perhaps the greatest pitcher of his generation sign with the Braves for five years, $28 million — despite Maddux making it clear he didn’t want to leave.

“I did everything possible to stay after the ’92 season,” Maddux said during a conference call Wednesday. “Chicago is a special place. I would love to see them win a World Series soon.”

Not soon enough, of course.

Until — or if — this next core of young homegrown hitters achieves the vision the front office has and the brass collects enough frontline pitching to go with it, chew on the vision of what might have been with Maddux and the Cubs’ last homegrown core.

“You could tell what he was going to be early,” said former Cubs’ cleanup hitter and broadcaster Keith Moreland, who caught Maddux’s second career start in 1986. “We were excited.”

The baseball savvy, the pinpoint command, the fielding ability, the photographic memory with individual hitters and tendencies. The results.

“He’s probably the greatest pitcher in the last 25 to 30 years,” Hendry said, “and he did it the right way.”

And most of it, memorably, unfortunately, for the Braves.

“That was a big mistake,” Moreland said with a laugh. “You probably see more today than you did then when pitchers get big deals: People say they can break down any day. But guys that mechanically sound don’t break down that much.”

Moreland imagines how the 1990s might have looked like for the Cubs with the durable, healthy ace.

“And then have him teaching those young guys, and maybe they would have stayed healthier,” he said. “You never know. …

“The what-ifs of the Chicago Cubs.”


Twitter: @GDubCub

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