Maddux had HOF sense of humour

* RHP Greg Maddux was known for his control, but not during a pre-season game with the San Diego Padres in 2008 throwing to Matt Stocco (Guelph, Ont.). ....  

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By Bob Elliott

Matt Stocco was with the class-A Lake Elsinore team in the San Diego Padres system in 2008.

Before the regular season began, the Padres and the Anaheim Angels hosted a home-and-home series. So farmhands Ernesto Frieri, Stocco, a catcher from Guelph, and two others were back-up Padres reinforcements from the minors.

They first made the trip to San Diego and Petco Park on March 28 where Greg Maddux would make his final appearance before starting the third game of the Padres season and then the two teams would play at Angels Stadium in Anaheim the next night.

“I knew all the catchers from catching bullpens,” said Stocco this week about his brush with Hall of Fame greatness. Maddux, who along with former Atlanta Braves teammate Tom Glavine, manager Bobby Cox, slugger Frank Thomas, managers Tony La Russa and Joe Torre will be inducted in Cooperstown on Sunday.

“They told me (Maddux) didn’t want young guys catching him, even during bullpens because he was always working on things,” Stocco said.

matt stocco

And so it came to pass that Josh Bard was coming out of the game and Michael Barrett was going in after hitting, so there wasn’t anyone to warm up Maddux before his inning ... no one but Stocco that is.

“Set up low and away and keep your head up,” pitching coach Darren Balsley told Stocco as he left the dugout.

Stories will be told about Maddux’s legendary control when he is inducted. The Hall of Famers and ex-teammates likely won’t tell this story.

“Maddux can hit any spot he wants right? So I set up low and away on the first pitch,” recalled Stocco, “he throws the ball high and outside. I had to jump to catch the ball. It was almost like he was trying to throw the ball to the screen.”

Next few warm-up pitches. Same thing.

“I was used to catching class-A guys who are wild and throw the ball high,” Stocco said. “I had a lot going on -- the ump (Angel Campos) was right behind me and I didn’t want him to get hit. The ump even asked ‘what’s going on?” I threw one ball back and (Maddux) gives me the look.

“Meanwhile, they’re all laughing in the dugout. It was his way of breaking me in, telling me: ‘this is not as easy as it looks.’”

Eventually, the warm-up session was over and Stocco returned to the dugout.

Balsley explained to Stocco that Maddux, the man with the pinpoint control, was trying to throw the ball to the screen as a joke.

Part II of the joke was supposed to be Maddux throwing his arms in the air -- as if Stocco had missed the ball -- and shown up the right-hander. Yet the higher and higher Maddux threw the ball away from the zone, the higher and higher Stocco leapt.

Manager Buddy (Harry Ralston) Black walked by, smiled and shook hands with Stocco.

After retiring his third out against the Angels, Maddux came to the bench and sat beside Stocco.

“He’d never ever talked to me and now Greg Maddux is asking me questions,” Stocco said.

Maddux wanted to know where Stocco was from, where he was going to play that season and where he went to school (Elon University).

“He asked how it looked for me this season with my club,” Stocco said.

Maddux pitched three scoreless innings against the Angels that day.

The right-hander had a Hall of Fame career winning 355 games in his 23-year career (11 seasons with the Atlanta Braves, 10 with the Chicago Cubs and two each with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Padres) pitching 5,008 1/3 innings and a 3.16 ERA. He also was regarded as having a HOF sense of humor.

And the best thing about it all was of the 25,049 fans in the park no one new what anyone was laughing was about -- outside of the people wearing Padres and Angels uniforms.

Stocco entered the game the next night in Anaheim in the eighth inning to face Angels reliever Francisco Rodriguez before 40,468. Rodriguez was coming off a 40-save season in which he’d gone 5-2 with a 2.81 ERA, striking out 90 hitters in 67 1/3 innings.

“I’m facing him in his final tune up before the season opener?” said Stocco. Padres players told Stocco to hit the fastball “because you won’t hit the slider.”

“He threw a first pitch fastball which I swung through, then a fastball for ball one,” said Stocco, “then it was slider, slider ... done.”

Stocco played five seasons in the minors before retiring and is now a coach with the Ontario Terriers. Stocco has told the story about the “wild” warmup Maddux “maybe 10 times.” To his former Guelph junior coach Scott Van de Valk, his father Joe and a few friends.

The best part of Stocco’s big-league spring at-bat against Rodriguez, now closing for the Milwaukee Brewers, was that the game was televised on Angels TV. His wife Ashley filmed the family watching the game on a cam corder in Guelph.

The cam corder does not contain a shot of Stocco having to chase a pitch from the Hall of Famer to the back stop.

Stocco saw to that -- as hard as Maddux tried to throw one.

It may have been one of the few times he was unable to throw a pitch where he wanted.

(This is the third in a series of stories leading up to the Cooperstown inductions July 27.)