"I really believe that this boy would be the number 1 player in the country if only he looked a bit more physical."
-- Cubs scouting report on Greg Maddux
May 26, 1984
The story of Greg Maddux becoming a Chicago Cub again -- he reportedly agreed to terms with the club on Tuesday for three years and $24 million -- is interesting enough, with his old team outbidding the Giants, Dodgers and (for heaven's sake!) Yankees to get him to return from whence he came. But the tale of Maddux's becoming a Cub the first time around is better. Much better.
It's hard to believe now, as he stands next to his Cy Young Award skyline and approaches 300 wins, but in 1984 Greg Maddux was a puny senior at Valley High in Las Vegas, one whose uniform never fit him right until Mom performed her own mastery with needle and thread. He was a good pitcher then. The 17-year-old Greg Maddux flashed shades of his future sorcery -- stiletto fastball, maddening changeup, exquisite control -- yet he was by no means a sure-fire prospect. Anything but.
Scouts had serious reservations about whether the kid, then just 5-foot-11 and 155 pounds, would even reach the big leagues. Would he have the stamina? Did he have the fastball? Even Maddux himself shared the doubts: "I never thought I'd be good enough to play pro ball," he told me many years ago. "By accident I got good. It's not like I tried. It just happened."
He was discovered by accident as well. The Cubs were scouting a Valley High right-hander named Mike Greer in 1983 when crosschecker Gene Handley noticed Maddux and told the team's area scout, Doug Mapson, to watch him the following spring. Maddux knew nothing of pro ball's interest in him. He hoped only for a college scholarship. Even those modest dreams took a hit when he stepped on the mound for his first game as a senior. Against Western High, Maddux's second pitch was lined over the left-field fence for a home run. Mapson marked this down diligently.
The persistent concern with Maddux among most scouts was that he didn't have the prototype, 6-foot-3 and 210-pound body they looked for. In fact, in the 19-year history of the draft to that point, no pitcher as small as Maddux had ever been chosen in the first round. "You really have to stick your neck out when a high pick is a guy of that size," Handley later recalled. "When the owner goes to spring training and sees him -- 'That boy there? He looks like the batboy!' -- you can be in trouble."
But something about Maddux still intrigued Mapson. Attached to the kid's underwhelming body was an arm that he just couldn't ignore. "He threw so easily," Mapson said. "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."
That extra something wasn't just in his shoulder, but above it. After 18 years of watching Maddux carve up major league lineups like a Thanksgiving turkey, we now appreciate how well he understands the cerebral side of pitching. He did then as well. He stood on the mound, silently plotting how to handle different situations and approach at-bats strategically. He was pitching's Bobby Fischer; his high school coach, Rodger Fairless, got most of his gray hair from watching this.
"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," Fairless said. "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 1984 rolled around, Maddux was no secret in scouting circles. Many Nevada scouts thought of him as a second- or third-round pick, but all area scouts love their own guys. Convincing the higher-ups to draft them is another matter.
Mapson had a tough time telling his general manager, Dallas Green -- a 6-foot-5 hulk of a pitcher during his own playing days -- that this wisp of a kid would actually pitch in the big leagues. Yet Mapson all but put his career on the line by pushing Maddux to his boss. His scouting report rated Maddux's future fastball as an 8 out of 10, his curve a 7 and his changeup an average 5. "His movement isn't a gradual tailing type but a quick explosive bat-breaking kink," he wrote. Mapson then went so far as to type out words as prescient as any in the history of scouting: "I really believe," Mapson wrote, "that this boy would be the No. 1 player in the country if only he looked a bit more physical."
Mapson's report, backed up more moderately by other Cubs scouts, made an impression on Green, and he remembered it on draft day when the scouting brass gathered in a conference room outside Green's office. The team's second-round pick was No. 31 overall, and they hoped to get him then. As the second round began, the Mets took Lorenzo Sisney and the Mariners took Mike Christ, two players who never made the majors. Cubs scouting director Gordon Goldsberry then looked at Handley.
"You think we should take him now?" he asked.
Goldsberry spoke into the speakerphone. "The Cubs select Valley High right-handed pitcher Gregory Maddux." There were no high fives in the Cubs' draft room. They crossed Maddux off their lists and moved on.
And believe it or not, Maddux wasn't even around to hear he was picked at all. The day of the draft, he had such low expectations that he was goofing around in Hawaii with his friends, on Valley High's Class of 1984 senior trip.
Maddux soon returned, of course, signed with the Cubs and reported to their Pikeville affiliate in the Appalachian League. He grew a few inches, put on 20 pounds, and took just two years to shoot up to the majors. He went 6-14 in his first reasonably full season in 1987, but the following year went 18-8, and has won at least 15 games every season since.
Mapson and Maddux remained friends even when each moved on to other clubs, Mapson as a crosschecker for the Giants and Maddux a growing legend with the Braves. They spoke often, Maddux always remembering the man who showed more faith in him than anyone. "I didn't believe him when he said how good I was," Maddux said with an embarrassed smile.
For his part, Mapson has always tended to downplay his role in scouting Maddux, saying it was a team effort. Occasionally, though, his tie to greatness will come up on an airplane or somewhere, and Mapson will confess to being the scout who signed Greg Maddux. His own wife, Patricia, never let him forget it.
"After I found out," Patricia Mapson once said, "I told him, 'Honey, if you're so smart, how come you didn't become his agent?' "
Alan Schwarz is the Senior Writer of Baseball America and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His first book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," will be published by St. Martin's Press in July.