The final act of Greg Maddux's distinguished career was an ignoble one. He wandered in from the Dodgers' bullpen in the third inning, with his team losing. He departed in the fifth inning, his team even further behind.
"A very special day for me," Maddux said.
Maddux, arguably the premier pitcher of his generation, started more games than any pitcher in major league history except Cy Young, Nolan Ryan and Don Sutton. The Dodgers dumped him into middle relief for the 2008 National League Championship Series — him and Clayton Kershaw, perhaps the most glamorous mop-up crew in recent memory.
Kershaw was 20. He was coming.
Maddux was 42. He was going.
He knew it, although he had made no announcement. This was an elimination game. The Dodgers were down by five runs. So, on his last walk from the mound to the dugout, without fanfare, he quietly asked the plate umpire for a baseball.
"I've got the ball in my room somewhere," Maddux said Wednesday. "It kind of stunk that we lost. But I knew it was the last time I was going to put on a uniform. I was privileged to wear it for as long as I did."
We were privileged to watch him for as long as we did, the craftsman who defied an era of power pitching and enhanced hitting. On Wednesday, the four-time Cy Young Award winner joined longtime Atlanta Braves teammate Tom Glavine and Chicago White Sox slugger Frank Thomas as the newest members of the Hall of Fame. Maddux received 97.2% of the vote, a higher percentage than any pitcher besides Ryan and Tom Seaver.
In 2008, with Maddux eager for one last shot at a second World Series championship, the San Diego Padres traded him to the Dodgers for the final weeks of the season. He started seven games, winning twice, with a 5.09 earned-run average. He did not make the postseason rotation, but he nonetheless left a lasting impression at Dodger Stadium.
The last weeks of Maddux's career were the first weeks of Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis' career. As Ellis told the story Wednesday, Maddux gave the rookie the cold shoulder for about a week, then noticed Ellis had arrived at the ballpark early one Saturday.
Maddux was already in the video room, and he invited Ellis to join him. The rookie awaited his lessons from the master.
"I don't know if he called me by my name," Ellis said. "I don't even know if he knew my name. But I was going to be sitting there with Greg Maddux, trying to milk the conversation for all it was worth."
Maddux spoke first. He needed a good wide receiver for his fantasy football team, and he wanted a recommendation from Ellis.
After that icebreaker — and after the recommended receiver caught a bunch of passes the next day — Maddux started to share his insights with Ellis. It was not the usual "watch what I do" stuff. Maddux ended his career throwing an 83-mph fastball, yet he could devise a successful game plan for pitchers with the big-time fastball and monster curve he never had.
Dodgers General Manager Ned Colletti recalled Maddux basically taking over scouting meetings and providing each pitcher with a custom plan to approach opposing hitters. Colletti watched in admiration as starting pitchers, generally creatures of silence on game day, sat with Maddux in the dugout and asked for help with that day's lineup.
"He's the smartest pitcher I've ever been around," Colletti said. "To me, he borders on a baseball genius. You knew you'd only see one or two guys like that in your whole life."
Maddux made his major league debut as a pinch-runner. He impressed upon pitchers the importance of contributing at bat, fielding a bunt, controlling the running game. And, if he could win with an 83-mph fastball, all that preparation really must be essential.
"He and Derek Lowe were always huddled in a corner talking about the game," Ellis said. "Derek passed that on to Clayton.
"You can kind of see the lineage. That's where Clayton got his work ethic."
On Wednesday, Maddux said he appreciated any suggestion he had helped but said Kershaw should get the credit for his success.
"He's a special pitcher," Maddux said. "He does things with a baseball nobody can do."
Maddux won the first Cy Young Award at 26. Kershaw has two already, at 25.
Perhaps they will meet again, in Cooperstown.