Larry Himes was tired of people second-guessing him in the spring of ’93.
In October ‘92, the Elias Sports Bureau determined Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg to be the best player in the game, according to its annual statistical rankings (which factors in season totals over a two-year span).
"Ryno" had made his ninth consecutive All-Star appearance and had led the team in hits (186), home runs (26), and stolen bases (17) in '92.
Greg Maddux was the ace of Chicago’s pitching staff in ‘92, and was widely considered to be among the top starting pitchers in the big leagues. The 26-year-old had just won his first Cy Young Award, bagged his third straight Gold Glove and was a two-time All-Star.
Nicknamed "Mad Dog," he and No. 2 starter Mike Morgan had established a close kinship (both attended the same Las Vegas high school)—and the pair was among the best one-two tandems in the National League.
Eligible for free agency for the first time in his short career, it appeared Maddux’s heart, like Bielecki’s, was with the Cubs.
Chicago had arguably the best position player and the best young pitcher in all of baseball. They had a solid nucleus of Maddux, Morgan, Sandberg, outfielder Andre Dawson, and first baseman and Gold Glover Mark Grace.
But by December, GM Larry Himes let two of them slip away—one of which he would never live down.
At baseball’s annual winter meetings, 38-year-old Dawson joined Maddux in seeking employment elsewhere. Dawson inked a two-year deal with the Boston Red Sox; and Maddux, reportedly heartbroken over the Cubs’ lack of effort to keep him in Chicago, signed a five-year, $28 million deal with Atlanta.
Until the last minute, it appeared Maddux would be in Yankee pinstripes; New York had heavily courted the right-hander and had offered $6 million more than Atlanta.
“It had nothing to do with the city, the fans, the players, the coaches,” Maddux said of leaving Chicago. “It just had to do with the way the contract was negotiated.”
Himes would not budge from his offer of five years, $27.5 million. He claimed to be on a tight budget—one that also precluded him from acquiring free agents Kirby Puckett and Barry Bonds that off-season.
“I’m tired of hearing about Maddux,” Himes said the next spring. “You’d have thought we traded Babe Ruth or something.”
Schuerholz, meanwhile, was giddy over his latest catch.
“The acquisition of Greg Maddux gives us the most formidable rotation in all of baseball,” Schuerholz said at the time.
Almost immediately—and certainly over a large portion of the next 10 years—Schuerholz’s assertion proved dead-on. The Braves pitching staff led the majors in wins and earned run average (3.14) that year.
The Cubs, meanwhile, could only boast a damn good closer. New addition Randy Myers set a single-season NL record for saves (53) that year.
On April 5, 1993, Maddux took the mound at Wrigley Field to a chorus of boo's. Some Cubs fans, too, were heartbroken and believed the budding young star had abandoned them.
But the unusually hostile environment at the "Friendly Confines" that day had little effect on Maddux’s performance. He pitched 8 1/3 shutout innings, walked just three and struck out four and Atlanta nipped Chicago 1-0. Morgan, for his part, allowed just one run through seven innings and fanned five, but was saddled with the loss.
The next day, recently-acquired Cubs starter Jose Guzman nearly no-hit the Braves. But with two outs in the ninth, lead-off hitter Otis Nixon lined a single to left to end Guzman’s bid at history (Milt Pappas was the last Cub at the time to have achieved the feat, in 1972).
It would have been the earliest no-hitter—not on Opening Day—in major league history. Guzman, Maddux’s de facto replacement, had taken a no-hitter into the eighth inning once before in ‘87 as a member of the Texas Rangers (Mitch Williams, the Cubs’ closer in ‘89, relieved Guzman in that game).
Chicago still won the game 1-0, but losing the no-hitter allowed the sting of Maddux’s performance—and the reminder of his absence—to endure.
Guzman won 12 games for the Cubs in ‘93, but he became emblematic of the caliber of player the team would sign during the ‘90s—aging, average and injury-prone.
He hit the disabled list the next April and never pitched another game in the big leagues.
Time would prove that letting Maddux slip away was closely akin to trading the Bambino in his prime. ‘Mad Dog’ retired in 2008 with four Cy Young Awards, eight All-Star appearances and 18 Gold Gloves.
Many Cubs fans always hoped, and even expected, Maddux to come back home. He did in 2004, but it was bittersweet. The Cubs had just returned to postseason play the year before, but they regressed each year Maddux was back, from ‘04 to ‘06.
And for the first time in his career, Maddux also saw his ERA rise above 4.00 in each of the three years he was back in a Cubs uniform.
Maddux returned to the fold in January this year as a special assistant to general manager Jim Hendry.
His role has included mentoring and developing young pitchers at the Cubs’ spring training complex in Mesa, Ariz.