For Perez, a front-row squat at Maddux's greatness
Braves longtime catcher behind plate for more of pitcher's games than anyone else
ATLANTA -- As Spring Training began before the start of the 1993 season, Eddie Perez was a Minor League catcher who was among the many members of the Braves organization excited about the opportunity to meet and play alongside Greg Maddux.
After winning the National League's Cy Young Award while pitching for the Cubs the previous season, Maddux tested the free-agent market and declined the Yankees' more substantial offer before signing a five-year, $28 million deal with the Braves, who had participated in the previous two World Series.
Though he had seen him on television, Perez envisioned Maddux as a larger-than-life character who would look at least somewhat physically imposing. Instead, he found himself introduced to a fun-loving, mild-mannered pitcher whose appearance and demeanor were more like what you would expect from the friendly next-door neighbor.
"Everybody was like, 'My God, look how small he is,' " Perez said. "We were thinking, 'Is that him? Is that the right guy?' "
Twenty-one years later, Maddux stands as one of the most recognizable figures in baseball history. There is still a chance his pedestrian appearance could allow him to be undetected during a casual trip to the mall or grocery store. But those who know what he accomplished during his 23-year Major League career will clearly recognize him as one of the greatest pitchers who ever lived.
The accomplishments of Maddux and his longtime Atlanta teammate Tom Glavine were celebrated on Wednesday, when both gained the honor of becoming first-ballot inductees to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. On Thursday, MLB.com and MLB Network will air the news conferences featuring the electees live from New York at 11 a.m. ET.
While Perez is thrilled for Glavine, Maddux's election proves to be even more special for the former catcher who now serves as Atlanta's bullpen coach.
Perez was behind the plate more frequently than any other catcher when Maddux was on the mound. He had the pleasure of catching 121 of the 744 games pitched by the legendary right-hander. No one else caught more than 81.
"I'm going to be excited and I'm going to be happy for him," Perez said. "We're talking about the Hall of Fame. I got excited when he got inducted into the Braves Hall of Fame here in Atlanta. I was going crazy. I'm just very happy for him and very proud that I had the chance to catch him in my career."
After appearing in the first seven games of his big league career in 1995, Perez came to Spring Training the next year and gladly accepted the opportunity to serve as Maddux's primary catcher. The since-departed Charlie O'Brien had handled the role the previous year, while Javy Lopez served as Atlanta's regular catcher.
During the previous few Spring Trainings, Perez had heard O'Brien, Lopez and longtime Atlanta coach Pat Corrales tell him about how intelligent Maddux was.
"They just said, 'This guy is smart,' " Perez said. "'Whatever he wants to do, let him do it.' "
When Perez accepted this assignment, which he held through the end of the 2000 season, Maddux was just a few months removed from having become the first pitcher to win four consecutive Cy Young Awards. Assuming a submissive role in this arrangement was not going to be difficult for the 27-year-old rookie catcher who had spent the previous nine seasons at the Minor League level.
"He was a little different the way you caught him and called the game," Perez said. "But anybody could do it. I was just in the right place at the right time."
While it has often been assumed Maddux simply did not want to pitch to Lopez, Perez has always scoffed at that notion. Lopez was behind the plate for 22 of the 25 starts Maddux made during a strike-shortened 1994 season in which the hurler produced a 1.56 ERA -- the third-best mark recorded in a season dating back to 1920.
"I don't think there was a difference between me, Javy or anybody else," Perez said. "I think it was just that Javy knew when he was going to have a day off and I knew when I was going to play. Maddux wanted somebody to concentrate on him all of the time. I think watching the games together in the dugout helped us a lot. Talking about the game we were going to pitch helped us a lot. I think that was the only reason. He wanted somebody to concentrate on him."
This role afforded Perez the honor of benefiting from Maddux's tremendous knowledge. During those days when they were not serving as battery mates, they sat side-by-side analyzing pitch selections and gaining a better understanding of the hitters they would be facing at some point within the next few days.
Early in their partnership, Maddux informed Perez that they would never pitch Jeff Bagwell inside. But with the Braves holding a four-run lead against the Astros on Aug. 11, 1999, Maddux opted to come in on Bagwell, who sent the offering what Perez estimated to be "500 feet foul." Later in the same at-bat, the former Astros slugger drilled another inside delivery deep over the outfield fence.
"I was mad," Perez said. "After the game, I was like, 'Why? We could have struck him out like we always do.' But he was like, 'They have a good team and they might be in the playoffs a few months from now.' But I was like, 'Whatever, dude, I want the complete game and I'm not worried about three months from now.' "
Two months later, the Braves met the Astros in the National League Division Series. Maddux completed a perfect first inning in Game 1 by striking out Bagwell with an array of pitches away.
"When we were walking back to the dugout, he said, 'Do you remember two months ago?' I had already forgot about it. But he said [Bagwell] was looking for the [inside] pitch the whole time. Then he turned around and laughed. That's something I'm never going to forget."
During his long career, which also included stints with the Cubs, Dodgers and Padres, Maddux captured the four Cy Young Awards, notched 355 wins -- second most since 1930 -- and joined Ferguson Jenkins, Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez as the only pitchers who have issued fewer than 1,000 walks while recording at least 3,000 strikeouts.
"His mentality is what set him apart," Perez said. "When he threw pitches, his ball moved a lot. He put it just right where he wanted to put it. And he knew a lot about hitting. Every time a hitter stepped to the plate, he knew how to get him out. His command was unbelievable and he knew what the hitter was thinking and what he was looking for. That's why he was so good."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.