By Mark Gonzales
The Arizona Republic
The good times in Chicago clearly outweighed Greg Maddux's bitter departure from the Cubs 12 years ago.
In fact, the memories were so precious that in February Maddux elected to return to where his career blossomed.
"The ballpark, the fans and the city of Chicago are outstanding," said Maddux, who won the first of his four National League Cy Young Awards in 1992, his final season with the Cubs. "If you don't like playing baseball there, you need help."
Maddux, who will take the mound tonight against the Arizona Diamondbacks, is one of several veterans who this past offseason returned to familiar teams in a sport better known for its transient nature. Free agency flooded the market with a glut of players the past two seasons, including 56, many of them arbitration eligible, who weren't tendered contracts by the Dec. 20 deadline.
Among those free agents, designated hitter Ellis Burks returned to Boston after a 12-year absence. Third baseman Vinny Castilla returned to Colorado after four years in which he played for three other teams, and he recently set a Rockies record for most consecutive games with at least one run batted in.
First baseman/designated hitter Rafael Palmeiro is back wearing the black and orange of Baltimore, where he previously played for five seasons (1994-98).
Left-hander Kenny Rogers is in his third stint in Texas, and pitcher Sidney Ponson (Baltimore) and first baseman Randall Simon (Pittsburgh) returned to their teams after being dealt midway through the 2003 season.
Colorado general manager Dan O'Dowd believes that players are becoming more willing to stay with their original teams.
"The economics of the game has changed," O'Dowd said. "I think quality of life decisions become more prevalent as some of the economic decisions take on more of a neutral process, meaning there's not great disparity. There's still (money) for the very top of the markets, but not 90 percent of the players."
O'Dowd got some bargains this off-season in free-agent relievers Turk Wendell (who lives outside the Denver area) and Steve Reed (who kept his off-season home even after leaving the Rockies for five seasons).
San Diego GM Kevin Towers believed the camaraderie built during the Padres' 1998 National League title helped influence pitchers Sterling Hitchcock, Andy Ashby and Joey Hamilton to re-sign with them, although none is on the active roster.
"We had a good history with them, and there was a comfort level with them," Towers said. "We know how they can help us in some way. And we knew after we traded Ashby (to Philadelphia before the 2000 season) that he didn't sell his house."
For Maddux, Las Vegas always will be his home, but the fact the Cubs had improved immensely since his departure weighed heavily in his decision to return to Chicago instead of signing with San Francisco. "The day games are great," Maddux said. "You can sit in your house in December and January and think what's going to happen in October. I thought this place might be a little better. Winning takes care of a lot of problems."
Cubs GM Jim Hendry was delighted that Maddux returned to Chicago after a winter long recruitment but intimated that not all free agents lean toward their roots.
"I think it's a case-by-case situation," Hendry said. "But in Greg's case, he felt comfortable during the time he was here (1986-92) and had confidence we were going to have a good team."
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