At 20, Cubs rookie Greg Maddux had a slight frame and boyish look that hid the fierce competitor inside him.
According to a Tribune report on his first day in the majors in 1986, Maddux was even smaller than his listed size of 6 feet and 150 pounds, and a pair of size-30 pants “bagged about his thighs and upper legs.”
Who knew a future Hall of Famer was inside that uniform?
“First time I saw him was in Instructional League, and (then-prospect) Jamie Moyer was with him,” former Cubs outfielder Darrin Jackson recalled. “I remember one guy saying, ‘You should see these two kids, they look like bat boys.’ I saw them and thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’
“But then I saw him break bat after bat after bat, and I said to myself: ‘I don’t even need a glove. I’m just going to sit on the ground. No one is going to hit this.’
“He was throwing 93 (mph) then, but with that movement, it might as well have been 98. It was the first time I stood in center field laughing at how one-sided it was.”
Maddux went 10-1 at Triple-A Iowa in 1986 and was a September call-up to a lousy team along with outfielders Dave Martinez, Chico Walker and Brian Dayett and pitcher Guy Hoffman.
“If we had known Maddux was going to be 10-1, chances are he’d have been up earlier and pitching against the Mets,” manager Gene Michael said. “Maybe then they wouldn’t be so far ahead.”
Upon his arrival, Maddux explained his repertoire in modest terms.
“I’m a lucky pitcher,” he said. “I throw it down the middle and hope they hit it at somebody. I try not to walk people. … I just throw a fastball, changeup and curve. They are all pretty much average. My fastball is not overpowering, and my curveball is just average. Same with my changeup.”
Maddux’s debut came in relief against the Astros on Sept. 3, 1986, at Wrigley Field — though it went in the books as taking place Sept. 2. The game had been suspended because of darkness after 14 innings at pre-lights Wrigley and had to be completed before the next day’s game.
The Astros scored three in the top of the 17th to take a 7-4 lead before Keith Moreland’s three-run homer in the bottom half tied it again. Maddux, the eighth Cubs pitcher, was called on to start the 18th and served up a one-out home run to Billy Hatcher, taking the loss in an 8-7 game that lasted 5 hours, 14 minutes over two days.
Maddux won his first start Sept. 7, an 11-3 decision over the Reds at Riverfront Stadium, to become the youngest Cubs pitcher to win a game and the youngest to throw a complete game since Ken Holtzman in 1966, when he was also 20.
Maddux declared himself “awestruck” afterward, while Jim Colborn, his Triple-A pitching coach, tempered expectations.
“I don’t think it’s fair to expect Greg to lead the league in strikeouts,” Colborn said. “He’s not a strikeout pitcher and he probably won’t ever win 25 or 30 games in the big leagues. But he should have a good big-league career. He’s a good competitor and he’s fun to watch, especially knowing that he just finished his paper route a couple of years ago.”
Maddux never did win 25 games or lead the league in strikeouts. But he wound up eighth in career wins with 355 and 10th in career strikeouts with 3,371, becoming one of the greatest pitchers of all time.