Greg Maddux

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How many times had he heard someone say it? How many times over the past 22 years had some catcher or coach or broadcaster said, “Greg Maddux? I bet you could catch him with your eyes closed”? Sounded plausible enough, maybe coaxed a chuckle or two from the pitcher, but mostly it was just something to say. Nobody realized it was just a matter of time before somebody decided to prove it.

This was in mid-September, in the home bullpen at Petco Park. Maddux, the human metronome, kept going into his windup with the same hands-over-the-head motion he’s used since he was a kid in Las Vegas. Pitch after pitch hit the mitt, wherever it was placed, like always. Padres bullpen catcher Ben Risinger, perhaps bored with the persistent perfection of it all, turned to bullpen coach Darrel Akerfelds and said, “I bet I could catch him with my eyes closed.”

That was all fine and rhetorical until Akerfelds said, “Okay, let’s go for it.”

First, a system had to be put in place. It was quickly decided that Akerfelds would stand a few paces in front of the plate and to the side, so he could track the path of the ball and yell “Now!” to let Risinger know when to squeeze his mitt.

“I KNOW I DON’T THROW VERY HARD ANYMORE. BUT I’D LIKE TO THINK I CAN STILL HURT A GUY WHO’S NOT LOOKING.”

Risinger, a blocky Australian who spent some time in the minors, promised not to cheat. Maddux, despite his long-standing commitment to the pursuit of a good laugh, was lukewarm on the exercise, citing liability concerns. “I know I don’t throw very hard anymore,” he said, “but I’d like to think I can still hurt a guy who’s not looking.” His protestations were ignored. There are times when a legend must bend to the public’s will, when the accumulated weight of transcendent talent forces him to display his gifts for the amusement of those less burdened. This, apparently, was one of those times. Risinger closed his eyes, and Maddux threw.

A catcher’s mitt is roughly 33 inches in circumference. To be caught, the ball must hit an area that is roughly one-third the size of the mitt. A regulation major league baseball has a diameter of roughly 2.9 inches. We’re not talking about throwing a strike here; we’re talking about hitting the palm of a hand from 60 feet 6 inches away. You can do the math, or just take Risinger’s word for it: “He’s the only guy I’d even come close to trusting with my eyes closed.”

The first pitch glanced off the top of Risinger’s mitt and hit him in the mask.

“That’s enough,” Maddux said, walking off the mound.

“One more,” Risinger said.

The second pitch hit Risinger square in the pocket, but something went awry. Either Akerfelds’ “Now!” was too late or Risinger’s mitt squeeze was too slow. The ball dropped at his feet.

“That’s enough,” Maddux said.

“One more,” Risinger said. “Please?”

Maddux wound up and threw. By now, pitching coach Darren Balsley was watching, along with a few other Padres who had received word that a strange experiment was taking place involving a catcher attempting to catch without the benefit of vision. The ball left Maddux’s hand, and Akerfelds yelled “Now!” and Risinger clenched his mitt around the ball.

He opened his eyes. There it was, in the mitt.

Arms were raised in celebration. It was a beautifully stupid scene. Risinger laughed so hard he fell down. Akerfelds was doubled over, laughing to the point of tears. Maddux looked on with a wry smile, shaking his head.

“One of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen,” said Akerfelds, who is 45 years old.

And so it was proved, once and for all: You really can catch Greg Maddux with your eyes closed.

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