NEW YORK -- In a literal sense, the road to the Baseball Hall of Fame is Route 80 to 25 Main St. in Cooperstown, N.Y. In a more figurative sense, that road would be under the big lights of the Majors -- your Wrigley Fields, your Turner Fields, your Comiskey Parks.
Sure, the professional road to Cooperstown goes through those cathedrals of the game, but it starts elsewhere. It starts in the smaller ballfields of the Appalachian League or the Gulf Coast League or the Arizona League. That's where big-time sluggers take their first pro cuts. That's where aces work their first bullpen sessions. That's where careers begin. Sometimes they end in the Hall of Fame.
No one knows that road better than Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas -- the Hall's three latest inductees as announced Wednesday.
Long grouped together as part of the Braves' fearsome rotations of the 1990s that also featured future Hall of Famer John Smoltz, Maddux and Glavine had ties predating their time with Atlanta. Born 20 days apart, the right-handed Maddux and the southpaw Glavine were both selected in the second round of the 1984 Draft -- the former by the Cubs, the latter by the Braves.
Maddux was steady in his first two full pro seasons, going 13-9 with a 3.19 at Class A Peoria in 1985 and 14-4 with a 2.91 mark between Double-A Pittsfield and Triple-A Iowa in 1986. He made his Major League debut in September of that second year and forced his full-time return in 1987 by going 3-0 with a 0.98 ERA and two complete games in his first four starts with Iowa.
Known as having one of the best commands in the history of the game but not necessarily the highest velocity, the 6-foot right-hander credited his time in the Cubs system with developing the finer points of his pitches.
"[Current Brewers pitching coach] Rick Kranitz and [Rockies pitching coach] Jim Wright, my first two coaches I had in pro ball, [taught] the best stuff doesn't win; the guy who pitches the best wins," said Maddux. "It's not a velocity contest. It's not a curveball contest. It's whoever pitches the best. It's whoever keeps the ball in front of the outfielders best wins."
But like most current and past Minor Leaguers will tell you, even those that don't quite make it to the biggest stage, there's plenty of room for development off the mound and away from home plate.
"This was my first time away from home, and I had to grow up fast," Maddux said. "That's what I remember early on. And then past that, you just try to keep getting better and try to learn as much as you can from all your coaches, all your teammates and those on your team. You've got to move up. You can't repeat a level. I always wanted to make sure I moved up a notch until I made it to the big leagues."
The rest will soon be on Maddux's plaque in Cooperstown: 23 years in the big leagues with the Cubs, Braves, Dodgers and Padres; four consecutive Cy Youngs from 1992-95 with the Braves. 355 wins; eight All-Star teams; 18 Gold Gloves; 97.2 percent of the Hall of Fame vote.
Like Maddux, Glavine made the requisite stops through the Minors following the 1984 Draft. He went 9-6 with a 2.35 ERA for Class A Sumter during his first full season in 1985. In instructionals later that year, scout Larry Monroe wrote that Glavine "will pitch in the big leagues. But whether he will really help a club depends on improvement of stuff and consistency overall."
For his part, the Massachusetts native, who was also drafted by the Los Angeles Kings as a hockey player, acknowledged he knew at the time that he had plenty of growing to do.
"For all of us and for most of the guys that played baseball, we all have an appreciation for what we went through in the Minor Leagues," he said. "I think baseball, more than any other sport, really is a sport where you've got to pay your dues. It doesn't matter how good you are coming out of high school or college or where you get drafted. Most guys are going to spend some time in the Minor Leagues, and that's where you really learn how to play the game on an everyday basis, how to come to the ballpark every day and get something out of every day."
The southpaw was solid again after making the jump to Double-A Greenville (Note: the Class A Advanced delegation didn't officially come about until 1990) where he went 11-6 with a 3.41 ERA in 1986 before a midseason promotion to Triple-A Richmond. He struggled mightily with command there -- 6.1 BB/9, 5.62 ERA in seven starts -- but had ironed those issues by the following season, with marks of 3.4 and 3.35 in 22 outings in 1987.
Glavine jumped to the Majors that year and rolled through a subpar rookie season in 1988 (7-17, 4.56 ERA) but rallied to win the first of his two Cy Youngs in 1991 with the Braves. He finished top five in the voting for that award six times in his 22 years with the Braves and Mets, made 10 All-Star teams and won 305 games.
Thomas' trip through the Minor Leagues varied greatly from his two fellow 2014 inductees.
For one, he was taken seventh overall by the White Sox in the 1989 Draft after, unlike Maddux and Glavine, attending college -- at Auburn University -- where he played both football and baseball. A football injury in 1987 had forced him to focus on the national pastime, but his limited time under the bright lights of the Southeastern Conference had already prepared him for baseball's biggest stages.
"It was easier for me because I got to play college football in front of 80,000 people," he said. "When I got to the Majors with 40,000 people all yelling at me, it was so easy. I felt like it was so easy just because, I mean, you've got 80,000 people and you're trying to perform -- it can be distracting at times."
But before the man who would be known as the Big Hurt could make it to the Big Show, he had to prove himself in the smaller venues of the Southern League in 1990. Though a 1988 scouting report by future Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo gave Thomas a 35/50 grade for his hitting tool, the massive first baseman beat those expectations by putting up a .323/.487/.581 slash line in 109 games for Double-A Birmingham. The power, which Rizzo rated extremely high at 70/80, was also on display with his 27 doubles, five triples and 18 home runs.
The White Sox, who ranked below average across the board offensively that season, summoned Thomas directly to the Majors in August, and he continued to produce, putting up a .330/.454/.529 slash line with seven homers and 31 RBIs in 60 games. The big first baseman/DH went on to win the American League MVP award in 1993 and 1994 and put together seven straight seasons of a .300 average, 20-plus homers, 100 RBIs and 100 walks from 1991-97 on Chicago's South Side. His 521 career homers are tied for 18th all-time with Ted Williams and Willie McCovey.
"My offense was so good coming out of college that I didn't develop as much as I should have defensively," admitted the slugger, who played 1,310 of his 2,322 career games as a designated hitter. "But while you save someone on the farm that can hit now in the Major Leagues and can hit well in the Major Leagues, that's what the White Sox had to deal with with me. Because they didn't want to bring me up when they did. But I was almost hitting .400 in Double-A with power, average, Triple Crown-type of thing, and their offense was really bad. So I forced them into making a decision and it worked out well for us all."
Sam Dykstra is a contributor to MiLB.com.