The making of Greg Maddux: For Cubs, it’s what could have been

The making of Greg Maddux: For Cubs, it’s what could have been
January 9, 2014, 3:15 pm
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Greg Maddux looked more like a tourist who wandered into the Waldorf Astoria than a baseball immortal. But that image became part of his genius.

Maddux sat in between Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas during Thursday’s Hall of Fame news conference in Midtown Manhattan. He listened to the reporter’s questions: How would you like to be remembered? What words should be on your Cooperstown plaque?

[RELATED: Greg Maddux earns Hall of Fame honor in landslide election]

“I guess ‘overachieved’ would be a good one,” Maddux said.

Maddux won’t get a Cubs hat on his plaque when the Hall of Fame reveals those choices next week. Cubs fans can still play the what-if game. Imagine if the team hadn’t let Maddux walk away after that dominant 1992 season.

The greatest pitcher of his generation won three consecutive Cy Young Awards for the Atlanta Braves and a World Series ring in 1995. Maybe he could have changed the organization’s DNA — or maybe all those Cubbie Occurrences would have caught up with him and he wouldn’t need an induction speech for July 27.

New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi — the former Cubs catcher who was there for that first Cy Young season in 1992 — explained the Maddux effect during Wednesday’s “SportsTalk Live.” This was the free agent who checked all the boxes.

[ALSO: Former Cubs catcher Girardi praises careers of Maddux, Thomas]

“When I think of Greg Maddux, I think of a guy that was truly a student of the game,” Girardi said. “Never wanted to miss anything. He watched all of batting practice. He knew exactly how he wanted to get hitters out. He was willing to teach us.

“He was willing to help us come along as young players as well. He was a real treat to catch. He was easy to catch because he never missed his spots. (He) was a great player, but he was also a great guy in the clubhouse, a great friend and someone that everyone loved.”  

Maddux could have been a billboard for “The Cubs Way.” Doug Mapson — a senior scouting advisor with the San Francisco Giants now going on three decades in pro ball — had once been part of another “culture change” at Wrigley Field.

In the early 1980s, it wasn’t the Boston Red Sox model. By leveraging their connections to the Philadelphia Phillies, Dallas Green and Gordon Goldsberry tried to build the scouting-and-player-development machine Cubs executives talk about now.

Mapson scouted Maddux at Valley High School in Las Vegas, immediately noticed a big-league curveball and convinced the Cubs to take him with the 31st overall pick in the 1984 draft.

[MORE: Cubs take out full-page ad to honor Maddux]

“Greg kind of broke the mold,” Mapson recalled Thursday on MLB Network. “Our pitching staff was 6-4, 6-5, so he was pretty small by comparison.

“I didn’t have a whole lot of clout, but I had a good supporting cast. (They) ran everybody into town, because they wanted to make sure if they’re going to take this 5-10 right-handed pitcher that he was pretty special.

“I don’t think I was really smart enough to know I was sticking my neck out at the time, to be honest. Ignorance is bliss, or whatever they say sometimes. I knew he was really good. I knew there was something special. It was pretty prophetic when I said: ‘If he was a couple inches taller, he’d be the first player taken in the draft.’

“He did the same thing (back then). He had a good mix and I think he had a feel already for pitching to contact, not extending his innings, not extending his pitch count. (I) always say and I probably picked it up from him: ‘A perfect inning is not three strikeouts — it’s three pitches and three groundballs.’ Greg already had a feel for that in high school, which is really unusual.”   

[RELATED: The Maddux Timeline: Not unanimous, but still a no-doubt Hall of Famer]

That confidence — that sense of knowing exactly what he wanted to do on the mound — pushed Maddux quickly through the system. At age 20, he made his big-league debut in September 1986.

“You walk down the steps at Wrigley Field to get into the clubhouse, and my locker’s next to Rick Sutcliffe,” Maddux recalled. “That was pretty cool because I had watched him growing up as a kid a little bit. And then the starting pitchers for that day were Jamie Moyer and Nolan Ryan. So you had kind of both ends of the spectrum out there. You had the guy that probably threw the hardest in the league against the guy that threw the softest in the league.”

Maddux needed those sharp observational skills because he didn’t throw 100 mph or look like any of the cartoon superheroes that popped up during The Steroid Era.   

“That’s kind of the secret of pitching,” Maddux said, “to learn yourself, to learn the hitters, to get away from the brain-dead heaver philosophy. It works for some guys, but you got to throw awful hard to be able to do that. You always try to not only throw a good pitch, but you also try to throw the right pitch.”

Maddux notched 194 of his 355 career victories and more than half of his 3,371 strikeouts for Atlanta. He pitched in the playoffs in 10 of his 11 years with the Braves, every one except the strike-shortened 1994 season. 

Maddux circled back to the North Side and signed with the 2004 team that collapsed despite a big-name rotation that also included Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, Carlos Zambrano and Matt Clement. 

Maddux got traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the middle of a last-place, 96-loss season in 2006. He missed the back-to-back division titles fueled by a massive Tribune Co. spending spree.

[RELATED: More proof that Greg Maddux was a genius at work on the mound]

In retirement, Maddux lasted two seasons as a special assistant to Jim Hendry, but left the organization again after the Cubs general manager got fired in 2011. As Theo Epstein’s regime took over at Clark and Addison, Maddux took a similar part-time job with the Texas Rangers, where his older brother Mike works as the pitching coach.

“Greg’s command of the baseball is unparalleled in our era,” Mike said in a statement released by the Rangers. “His quick work in recording outs became the gold standard for efficiency in our game.

“If you could combine command, movement, change of speeds and the heart of a champion, you’d have a good No. 2 pitcher to follow Greg. He was THAT good.

“Mom and Dad were always nervous when Greg was a youngster about him ‘catching a cold and catching the flu,’ because he caught EVERYTHING. Eighteen Gold Gloves later ... Mom and Dad were right.”

Maddux polled at 97.2 percent and the Hot Sports Take industrial complex was outraged that 16 people inside the Baseball Writers’ Association of America didn’t vote for him. The Zen philosophy, the “Mad Dog” personality, the “Chicks Dig the Long Ball” sense of humor, the Hall of Fame slam dunk…no one else could have seen all this coming. 

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