Greg Maddux had been a Dodger all of one day and he’d already set up his first hitter, luring rookie Russell Martin into a poker game.
Martin didn’t know Maddux’s father was a longtime card dealer in Las Vegas. He suspected, though, that the 40-year-old future Hall of Fame pitcher would possess every attribute necessary to win.
“He’s analytical, he’s deceptive and he’s a veteran,” Martin said. “I’m going to have to be careful.”
Expect Maddux to invite a gullible Derek Lowe for 18 holes in the near future. Although Lowe is close to a scratch golfer, don’t count out the shorter guy with lines in his face and the build of a financial advisor.
Maddux, acquired from the Chicago Cubs in a trade Monday, is becoming familiar with his new teammates in time-tested ways, putting them at ease and cementing friendships that could be invaluable in a pennant race. But poker and golf also feed a competitive nature that remains as sharp as it was during his debut as a 20-year-old in 1986.
“I’m here because I want to pitch and I want to help the team win,” he said. “I still love to compete. The challenge of going out there every five days and matching up mentally and physically against a lineup of major league hitters is something I enjoy.”
The World Series of Poker can wait. So can Riviera or Sherwood or wherever he decides to tee it up on an off day.
To the Dodgers’ delight, Maddux will pitch tonight.
“I still can’t believe we have him, it’s like a miracle,” said coach Rich Donnelly, who has watched from the third base coach’s box of four National League teams repeatedly carved up by Maddux.
He might be slightly built and his fastball may top out at 87 mph, but Maddux ranks second to Roger Clemens among active pitchers with 327 victories and third behind Clemens and Randy Johnson with 3,133 strikeouts. He has won four Cy Young Awards and 15 Gold Gloves while playing for the Atlanta Braves and Chicago Cubs.
He can’t take any of those accomplishments to the mound tonight against the Cincinnati Reds, though. There are legitimate questions about how much he has left. Maddux has gone 4-11 after beginning the season 5-0.
Now he’s expected to stabilize a Dodgers starting rotation that has been inconsistent for weeks. He’s just glad to be pitching for a team that believes it can make the playoffs -- something the Cubs gave up on months ago.
“It’s nice to have a reason to pitch besides doing it for myself,” he said. “That’s what happens when your team falls out of the race. We are absolutely still in it.”
A key to his effectiveness is working well with his catcher. This is where Maddux and Martin are playing the same hand. The fact that Martin was 3 years old when Maddux broke into the big leagues won’t excuse mistakes behind the plate.
Maddux doesn’t want Martin to set up on one side of the plate, then shift to the other in an effort to confuse the batter, a ploy Martin has become adept at.
“He wants me to set up early and not move,” Martin said. “He told me not to tell him to throw one in the dirt or climb the ladder with a high pitch. He said, ‘I know when to do that.’ ”
Martin thought for a moment and shrugged.
“Of course he does,” he said. “He’s so prepared. This guy knows exactly what he wants to do. I just hope he likes me.”
Maddux also told Martin that he won’t shake off many signs. Instead, he’ll throw the pitch he wants to throw, even if it isn’t what the catcher called.
“He said that as long as the location is the same, it doesn’t matter,” Martin said. “He’ll throw it and I’ll catch it.”
Or somebody will hit it. Maddux has allowed 153 hits in 136 1/3 innings and his earned-run average is an unsightly 4.69 -- higher than any season since 1987. He had lost six decisions in a row before winning his last two starts, although in one he gave up seven earned runs in six innings.
He’s hoping the trade will invigorate him, and so do the Dodgers, who gave up reasonably priced Gold Glove infielder Cesar Izturis for him, then traded top power-hitting prospect Joel Guzman to Tampa Bay for infielder Julio Lugo to plug the gap left by Izturis.
The Dodgers don’t want this to be a two-month rental. They’d love to re-sign Maddux for another season. He’s unsure whether he wants to play another year but said the Dodgers would have the upper hand in gaining his services if he does.
“I don’t want to embarrass myself, by any means,” he said. “But as long as I can do it, I want to pitch.”
Like anyone who has reached the pinnacle of their profession, he must come to terms with no longer being dominant. Maddux’s brother Mike was a journeyman pitcher who lasted 15 years in the major leagues.
“I remember my brother telling me in his last year or two, ‘You don’t know how good I have to pitch just to get out of an inning,’ ” Maddux said this year. “I’m thinking, what’s he talking about? I’m starting to understand more and more what he meant by that.”
It probably would take the Dodgers $8 million or so to coax another year out of Maddux. There isn’t much risk of him getting injured -- he has never been on the disabled list.
And there is the intangible benefit of his knowledge and professionalism rubbing off on young players, from Martin to rookie starter Chad Billingsley, who chatted with Maddux throughout batting practice Wednesday.
He is reluctant to dispense too much advice, especially before he has established himself on the mound with his new team. But it’s not difficult to imagine what he would tell Billingsley. Maddux has employed the same principles since learning to pitch at 15 from a retired scout named Ralph Medar on a parched Nevada ball field.
The movement and location of his pitches not only are more important than their velocity, but can also make balls look like strikes and strikes look like balls.
“You try to make a hitter’s eyes see something that isn’t there,” he said.
Maddux’s mechanics are a study of simplicity, which enables him to repeat his delivery over and over. But doing so also requires mental strength.
“There have been plenty of times I’ve gotten tired mentally before I’ve gotten tired physically,” he said. “A lot of people don’t understand that.”
Most pitchers tend to increase their velocity when they get in trouble. Maddux throws softer.
“When you are going good, remember what you are doing right,” he said. “Because when you are struggling, those are exactly the things you are doing wrong.”
Those thoughts will run through his head tonight as they have countless times before.
Oh, and one more thing.
“I want to have fun,” he said. “I always try to remember that.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
By the numbers
A look at some of the key statistics put up by Greg Maddux:
Cy Young Awards: 1992, ’93, ’94, ’95
* National League All-Star: 1988, 1992, ’94, ’95, ’96, ’97, ’98, 2000
* Led National League in ERA: 1993, ’94, ’95, ’98
* Led National League in shutouts: 1994, ’95, ’98, 2000, ’01
* Led National League in starts: 1990, ’91, ’92, ’93, 2000, ’03, ’05
* Led National League in wins: 1992, ’94, ’95