Ettrick, Wisc. -- population 524 -- is the middle of baseball nowhere. The state's team, the Brewers, are five hours away by car. The Twins are two hours closer, but few Wisconsinites can bear to root for Minnesotans. And the boonies past Ettrick's city limits, where I grew up, were well beyond the area of service for cable companies. This is to say we didn't see much Major League Baseball in Ettrick.
Still, baseball is perfect for small towns. Once you have the bats, the balls and the gloves, all you need is space, and Ettrick has plenty. The baseball field is the place to be during Ettrick summers, whether for beer league softball (the owner and namesake of Wieners Bar has forgotten more about baseball then you know) or little league.
Come to a little league practice in Ettrick or the neighboring towns in the late 1990s, and it was the Braves logo, not the Twins or the Brewers, displayed on a surprisingly large number of hats and t-shirts. As I mentioned, we didn't get much Major League Baseball in Ettrick, but when we did, it was usually the Braves, thanks to their domination of the network airwaves during the playoffs and featured Games of the Week.
For one of the last generations of baseball fans who couldn't watch whatever game they wanted whenever they wanted, the Braves of the 1990s were easy to follow. Particularly, I latched onto Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, the constants of those great Atlanta squads, and two members of the 2014 Hall of Fame class, which will be inducted next weekend in Cooperstown.
Maddux was everything we were taught pitchers were supposed to be. Of course, he had the talent. Despite those who like to act as if he were a junkballer, his fastball had big velocity, especially in a time before every bullpen featured multiple pitchers capable of eclipsing 95 mph on every fastball. But Maddux became almost a religious figure because he embodied pitching's mythical ideal. It was his presence: stoic, intelligent, always one step ahead. It's easy to imitate, at first. But it crumbles without the results, and nobody backed it up like Maddux.
And Maddux was there every year. Besides the strike-shortened seasons, Maddux started 30 games every year from age 22 in 1988 to his retirement in 2008. He played in six All-Star games in the nineties and another in 2000. He led the league in ERA four times in that decade as well. And over the course of his career, Maddux pitched 198 postseason innings and held the world's best teams to a 3.27 ERA. Whenever we baseball fans in nowheresville got a glimpse of the big stage, Maddux was there. That's how idols are built, even in the most remote areas of baseball civilization.
Maddux would have been revered anywhere, but without Glavine, his presence nationally wouldn't have been so constant. As the crafty lefty, reliant on finesse, Glavine may have been perceived as a sidekick; he had no chance to overshadow Maddux in the public eye.
Even though I personally will never be able to separate him from Maddux and the 1990s Braves, Glavine enters Cooperstown on his own merit. He, like Maddux, was ever-present, starting 30 games per year (again excepting strike-shortened seasons) from 1990 through 2007 and matching Maddux's six nineties All-Star appearances.
Maddux's stuff on the mound gave him a margin of error, he just didn't need it. Glavine (like almost every other pitcher) didn't quite have that, and that's why his stats pages aren't dotted with black ink. But if anything, this just makes his longevity more remarkable. As his stuff decayed and his margin of error shrunk even smaller, Glavine seemed to become savvier, even remaining productive with the Mets in the late 2000s.
Still, something didn't seem right later in their careers. Whether it was Maddux in Chicago or San Diego or Glavine in New York, it was odd when they weren't back-to-back in the rotation. That's the biggest reason the six-year-old from Ettrick is so glad Maddux and Glavine are going into the Hall of Fame together. As one who treasured the few moments of baseball's biggest stage I was privileged to see, Maddux and Glavine weren't just great pitchers. They were the pitchers, the idols. To a kid growing up in a small town, they were baseball, and everything great about it.