December 9, 1992 – The Atlanta Braves signed Greg Maddux as a free agent.
After the 1992 season concluded, the 26 year-old “Professor” was at a crossroads in his career. He had reached new heights the previous season and earned his first Cy Young Award as a member of the Chicago Cubs. However, just as he was realizing his immense potential, he was also hitting free agency for the first time.
The Cubs desperately wanted to keep Maddux. Before 1992, the Cubs offered a 5-year, $27.5M contract, which would have made Maddux the highest paid in baseball. The Cubs and their general manager Larry Himes didn’t do themselves any favors. During the All-Star Break, as a negoiation ploy, they reminded Maddux that he had never won 20 games or a Cy Young award so their previous offer from December 1991 was sufficient. One thing, though – Maddux would reach both of these accolades by the end of the year. Still, he wanted to return to Chicago, but Himes was spending a small fortune on Jose Guzman and Randy Myers after feeling like Maddux was not going to return even after a modest increase over their previous best offer.
Chicago’s strange maneuvering led to an open market and one team looked like the clear favorite. No, not Atlanta, but the New York Yankees. The Bronx Bombers had finished under .500 for the fourth consecutive season and hadn’t been to the playoffs since the strike-shortened 1981 season. Attendance dipped to 1.75M in 1992, the lowest non-strike season attendance since 1975 and unacceptable for The Big Apple. George Steinbrenner was ready to spend heavily to get the Yankees back into contention and their rotation was badly in need of help. Outside of Melido Perez, who had a 2.87 ERA in 1992, the Yankees didn’t have much of anything.
A highly motivated Steinbrenner and his General Manager, Gene Michael, made a shopping list. Included was Guzman, who had signed with the Cubs. They also sought the services of David Cone, but he went back home to Kansas City. They tried to bring back Doug Drabek, who they dealt to the Pirates in 1986. Like Cone, he sought a place closer to home and signed with the Astros. Greg Swindell joined Drabek in Houston while Chris Bosio headed out west to Seattle.
The Yankees needed Maddux and they gave the right-hander the full court press. They brought him to the Bronx and sent him to Broadway shows. They even arranged for him to have face time with Donald Trump – then only a businessman and sometimes tabloid star. Michael, who had managed the Cubs when Maddux reached the majors in 1986, flew out to Las Vegas and played golf with the pitcher. In New Jersey, Michael toured neighborhoods with Maddux and his wife as the Yankees did everything to influence his decision.
The money wasn’t half-bad, either. The Yankees bested Chicago’s best offer (5 yr, $30M) before increasing it to $34M. Maddux’s agent, Scott Boras, countered with a total of $37.5M – though at that point, the Atlanta Braves were in the picture. The Yankees held at $34M, but offered a $9M signing bonus.
The Yankees gave it their all, but what they couldn’t do is prove to Maddux that they were going to be contenders. During the six years Maddux was a fixture in Chicago’s rotation, the Cubs had finished above .500 just once. Maddux didn’t need the biggest offer, he didn’t want to go see “Miss Saigon,” and he didn’t need a sit-down with The Donald. What he wanted – or needed – was a winner.
He got that with the Atlanta Braves. Just as Maddux was closing on a deal with the Yankees, the Braves offered him a $25M contract over five years. While it didn’t immediately convince Maddux to sign, it gave him enough to back off joining the Yankees for the time being. When, on the next day, John Schuerholz upped the offer to $28M, the righty agreed within hours to join the Braves. He left $6M more on the table that he would have received by signing with the Yanks.
Of course, we know what happened next. For eleven years, Maddux pitched 363 games for the Braves with a 2.63 ERA and 2.95 FIP. He never walked more than 2 per nine innings, completed 61 games, and threw 21 shutouts. Along the way, he won three more Cy Youngs, went to six All-Star Games, and won a Gold Glove in all but his final year with the Braves.
Eleven years after leaving Chicago frustrated with their approach to resigning him, Maddux returned to the Cubs in 2004 before finishing up his 23-year career by playing for the Padres and Dodgers. The Yankees turned out okay, too. As did Maddux, who was later voted into the Hall of Fame (though not unanimously because writers are ridiculous).