By Alan Schwarz
It’s hard to believe now while he builds a Cy Young Award skyline in his living room, but Greg Maddux once was a puny high school kid, one whose uniform never fit him right until Mom performed her own mastery with needle and thread.
He was a good pitcher then. Quite good, in fact. The 17-year-old Greg Maddux flashed shades of his present sorcery—stiletto fastball, maddening changeup, exquisite control—yet imagining this legend as a real-life, fallible, even questionable talent borders on the heretical.But that’s exactly what he was. Maddux grew up in Las Vegas, where his father Dave dealt poker at the Union Plaza casino and his mother Linda was a dispatcher for the Henderson police department. He loved sports, adored playing every afternoon with his older brother Mike and friends. By the time the calendar turned to his senior year of high school, he was talented enough that pro scouts were ready to offer him a job. Greg was just as eager to accept.
When the Cubs took him early in the second round of the June 1984 draft, no one could predict Maddux, then just 5-foot-11 and 155 pounds, would attain anywhere near his current stature. This goes for almost every all-star, of course. Ken Griffey and Frank Thomas have exceeded even the loftiest expectations. With Maddux, the doubts were more heartfelt than cautious. Would he have the stamina? Did he have the fastball? He was no lock to reach the major leagues.
“I never thought I’d be good enough to play pro ball,” Maddux says. “By accident, I got good. It’s not like I tried. It kind of just happened.” Maddux had about as much confidence as the scouts did. He showed potential, but what did that mean? He didn’t know how good he really was or could be. All he hoped for was a chance to find out.
On draft day, he didn’t pace the family room waiting for a team to call. He hadn’t hired an agent or weighed stock options. When the phone rang on June 4, he was goofing around in Hawaii with his friends, on Valley High’s Class of 1984 senior trip.
Gene Hadley remembers his first glimpse. Then the Western scouting supervisor for the Cubs, Hadley went to Valley High to see its star player, a senior righthander named Mike Greer. Greer, who later became a fifth-round pick of the Indians and flamed out in the minors, didn’t pitch particularly well and was removed in the fifth inning. In came an undersized junior who caught Handley’s eye. “I was impressed,” says Handley, in his 42nd year scouting for the Cubs. “He was throwing an average major league fastball right then as a junior. He was an impressive athlete. He could run, throw and field his position very well. He lacked size, but they don’t have a size requirement in the major leagues, thank goodness.”
Handley phoned his area scout, Doug Mapson. “Mike did fine,” he reported, “but you’ve got a good one next year in this kid Maddux.” His interest piqued, Mapson took note of Maddux the rest of the season.
But Maddux knew nothing of it. In fact, he was still upset over not playing basketball anymore. He realized his future lay on the baseball field, so he had stopped playing in the pickup games over at the hoops-happy University of Nevada-Las Vegas, where he’d continually get clobbered on college guys almost twice his size. “I was a freaking guard. I was brutal,” Maddux says. “I loved playing, but I couldn’t guard anybody. And I didn’t want to break my leg or my finger or anything.”
Valley won the state baseball championship his junior year, with the final game played at UNLV’s Barnson Field. It was there that Maddux got his first taste of the big time.
“We thought we were so great because we were playing on a college field,” he says. “I hit a grand slam. Of course, the wind was blowing out 100 miles per hour. It was a pop fly. But it was still a grand slam.”
Back in 1983, there were no summer gala high school tournaments or summer showcases for the nation’s prep stars to flaunt their wares. Mapson and others wouldn’t see Maddux pitch again until the following spring. He started the first game of his senior year, against Western High. The leadoff batter lined Maddux’ second pitch over the left field fence for a home run. Maybe the little guy wasn’t that good after all. Any decent scout, though, looks to a pitcher’s repertoire more than his results. And attached to Maddux’ underwhelming body was an arm like few others around. “He threw so easily,” Mapson says. “And people would question his velocity, but I’d get 85-87 on the slow gun. One day, in the eighth inning of a seven-inning game, he needed a strikeout. I swear the pitch hit 90. When he needed that extra something, it was there.”
“At that age I could throw the ball by hitters. I’ll bet Tom Glavine and John Smoltz also threw harder in high school than they do now,” Maddux says. “I can’t do that up here. Major league hitters are too good.”
The persistent concern with Maddux wasn’t his fastball. Or his curveball or changeup, which he could already control like a marionette. The nagging question was whether he’d have the body to keep throwing the pitch for seven or eight innings every five days for a decade. The prototype major league righthander is a strapping, 6-foot-3, 210-pound athlete. Not some unassuming fellow who looks more suited to throwing bags of peanuts in the stands.
In the 32-year history of the draft, no pitcher as small as Maddux has been chosen in the first round. So scouts, who are paid to envision players in major league uniforms four years down the road, looked at Maddux and harbored doubts. Handley wasn’t one of them. He had been a 5-foot-10, 155-pound infielder during his playing days and knew what brains and heart could do.
And as Maddux now says, “Some of the smallest guys in the world run marathons. They have the endurance and stamina.” “You really have to stick your neck out when a high pick is a guy of that size,” Handley says. “When the owner goes to spring training and sees him—’That boy there? He looks like the batboy!’—you can be in trouble.” Some scouts chose to avoid that trouble. They simply dismissed him.
“Greg and I were playing in a golf tournament at the Sahara one day after Greg had just made the majors,” Dave Maddux says, “and we were paired up with a guy who turned out to be a scout for the Astros. He said to Greg, ‘I’ll tell you, I scouted you in high school and I put down that you were too small to play in the big leagues. Shows how smart I am.”
Maddux was smarter than people realized, too. After years of watching him carve the plate like a Thanksgiving turkey, we now appreciate how well he knows his craft. He did then as well. He stood on the mound, silently plotting how to handle different situations. He was pitching’s Bobby Fischer.
His high school coach, Rodger Fairless, remembers how some of his hair turned gray. “I get really fired up and nervous during games. Greg would drive me nuts because I was looking for him to get fired up, too,” says Farirless, now the coach at Nevada power Green Valley High in Henderson. “He would always have the same approach out there, so even-keel. You never knew what he was thinking. One game I brought him in in the bottom of the seventh with us up 5-3. He walked the next two guys to load the bases and I was thinking, ‘Geez, what did I do?’ Then he struck the next three guys out. I guess he knew what he was doing. He was more of a competitor than I ever gave him credit for.”
By the time May rolled around, Maddux’ name was no secret in scouting circles. Most clubs planned to consider Maddux as a second- or third-round pick. Linda Maddux remembers one game where she sat behind a Cardinals scout and ogled his 1982 World Series ring. “It was the first one I’d ever seen,” she says. “He turned around and said, ‘Madam, let me assure you, your son will have one of these someday.’ I had cold chills. And the thought was, ‘You really think he’ll make it to the major leagues?”
That’s what Mapson told his bosses, Cubs scouting director Gordie Goldsberry and general manager Dallas Green. He had to again and again. All area scouts have to defend their positions staunchly to get a player in their territory drafted, but it took plenty for Mapson to convince Green, a 6-foot-5 hulk of a pitcher during his playing days, that Maddux was worth the third overall pick in the second round.
“I really believe that this boy would possibly be the number 1 player taken in the country if only he looked more physical,” Mapson wrote on his scouting report. Other Cubs scouts were more reserved but still positive. Handley discussed how Mike (now pitching for Boston) had filled out after signing with the Phillies. Brandy Davis wrote, “Uses all of his body in good concert with his arm … comes right at hitters … throwing too many (curveballs) takes toll on his stamina.” Spider Jorgensen said, “tall gangly … natural delivery & nothing experimental or manufactured,” but later added, “lacks overall control on all pitches.”
When the Cubs scouting brass assembled on draft day in a conference room outside Green’s office, Maddux was high enough on their list that they hoped he would be available with their second-round pick, No. 31 overall. Taking him in the first round was out of the question. The Cubs used that selection on Morehead State University’s Drew Hall, the perfect opposite of Maddux: an experienced, hard-throwing lefty. Pretty much a no-brainer.
As the second round began, the Mets and Mariners chose two players who never reached the majors, Lorenzo Sisney and Mike Christ. Goldsberry turned to Handley. “You think we should take him now?” he asked. “Yes, absolutely.” Goldsberry spoke to his speakerphone. “The Cubs select Valley High righthander Greg Maddux,” he said.
There were no high-fives. They crossed Maddux off their list and moved on. Dave Maddux was working the race and sports book at the Union Plaza that day when the pit boss walked over to him. “Your wife called,” he said. “They draft went as anticipated.”
That meant the Cubs in the second round. Mapson had become a good friend of the family and told them the Cubs wanted to take him in the second round. The feeling was mutual. “I don’t know who this Drew Hall is,” Dave Maddux told Mapson after the draft, “but I can guarantee you my son’s better than he is.”
He was right. Hall enjoyed a nondescript, five-year run in the majors. Maddux finally grew a few inches and pounds and well, you know the rest. Both Mapson and Maddux have moved on from the Cubs, the scout to the Giants and the pitcher to the Braves, yet the two remain close.
“I didn’t believe him when he said how good I was,” Maddux says with an embarrassed smile. Mapson went to Maddux’s wedding in 1989 and they still speak regularly.
Mapson didn’t boast of the work he did that spring. It was a team effort, he maintains.
He’s paid to see talent in the raw and untested kids and if there’s another legend out there this year it’s his job to find him. Occasionally, though, Mapson’s tie to greatness will come up on an airplane or somewhere, and he’ll confess to being the scout who signed Greg Maddux.
“After I found out,” says Mapson’s wife Patricia, “I said, ‘oh honey, if you’re so smart, how come you didn’t become his agent?”