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TURN FOR BETTER : Maddux Lost 14 Games in 1987 but Has 13 Victories Already in ’88 for Cubs

Times Staff Writer

Greg Maddux, at 21 the National League’s youngest player last season, learned some tough lessons. He had a 6-14 record with the Chicago Cubs, losing his last six decisions.

Now, a winner of seven of his last eight starts--he pitched to a no-decision Tuesday--Maddux leads the majors in wins with a 13-3 record and credits what he calls an average fastball, an average curve and better-than-average breaks.

“That’s the way he is,” teammate Rick Sutcliffe said. “He holds the (New York) Mets to one run in nine innings and talks about how lucky he is.

“He’s just a shy kid until he goes to the mound. Then he’s got guts the size of a basketball.”

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Inflated? Maybe not.

“I can remember watching a young Don Drysdale, and this kid’s the same way,” Manager Don Zimmer, a former teammate of Drysdale, said. “Nothing fazes him. Half the time you don’t even know he’s here. I mean, it’s really fun to see a kid like this go from one year to another.

“It’s like with a young hitter. You look up in mid-season and he’s batting .340 and thinking no one can get him out. This kid’s just bubbling with confidence right now.”

Bubbling is not the word reporters, visiting his locker in increasing numbers, would apply to the right-hander. Confident he may be, but it is more self-effacing, more soft-spoken than bubbling. Reporters often have to lean forward to catch his words.

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Of course, if it took time to adjust to a major league mound and environment, it also takes time to adjust to the daily media pressure, particularly in Chicago, where the Cubs are king.

“I’m used to it on the day I pitch, but it’s getting harder on the other days as well,” Maddux said. “I can’t get caught up in it. I’ve had a great start, but it’s still early.”

That is the Maddux theme. He seems to have both feet on the ground, except when he’s in his delivery.

“This is all great, but last year at this time I think I went on to win one game. It can change in a heartbeat,” he said.

“When you’re 6-14 one year and 13-3 the next, I think everybody has to be surprised. I mean, I know I am. I felt that if I was .500 this year, I’d have made a big improvement and really helped the team out. I’ve gotten tons of runs and every break in the world.”

Breaks are one thing. Knowing what to do with them is another. Maddux seems to know. He leads the league in complete games, shutouts and innings pitched. He is fourth in earned-run average at 2.16. Of his 137 innings, 116 have been scoreless.

And his record could even be better, for in his three losses, the Cubs scored two runs when he was on the mound. He lost to the St. Louis Cardinals, 3-0; to the Pittsburgh Pirates, 4-0, and he left trailing the San Francisco Giants, 4-2, in a game the Cubs eventually lost, 7-6. Of his 17 starts, he has failed to get a decision only twice.

Said Zimmer: “He hasn’t pitched a bad game. In fact, he’s pitched only a few bad innings.”

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There were none of those in a 3-0 victory over the Montreal Expos in which he retired 16 straight batters. Said Hubie Brooks, Montreal’s right fielder: “Every pitch he throws moves. It moves down or it moves across the plate. He has a hell of a lot of confidence now and why not? He’s getting everybody out.”

Gregory Alan Maddux is the brother of Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Mike Maddux, 26. They are the sons of Dave and Linda Maddux of Las Vegas. Dave is a casino card dealer who spent 22 years in the Air Force, frequently on the move.

Youngest son Greg was born in San Angelo, Tex., and lived in Greensburg, Ind., Riverside, Calif., and Madrid, Spain, before his father retired from the service and settled in Nevada.

The Maddux boys were continually meeting, then leaving friends and often invented games they could play on their own. Sometimes it was hardball, sometimes Wiffle Ball. On the occasions when they could field full teams, Greg always ended up with Mike and the older kids, honing his skills against the better competition.

Mike laughed in recollection and said, “Then he’d go back and play with kids his age and it was no contest. He was head and shoulders above the rest. Of course, when we were on the field together, he was always second best to me.”

Mike Maddux was eventually drafted by the Phillies after his junior year at Texas El Paso. Greg was the Cubs’ No. 2 choice in the June draft of 1984, his senior year at Valley High in Vegas, a breeding ground for pro prospects under Coach Roger Fairless.

Baltimore Orioles pitcher Mike Morgan and Boston Red Sox second baseman Marty Barrett went to Valley, as did pitcher Dan Opperman, the Dodgers’ No. 1 pick in the 1987 draft, and pitcher Steve Chitren, who helped Stanford win 1987 and ’88 national collegiate titles.

Greg Maddux had to choose between the Cubs and a scholarship at Arizona and said, “I was only going to go to college to play baseball anyway, and the Cubs were offering $80,000. It was hard to turn down.”

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Maddux was 6-2 at Pikeville, Ky., that summer, 13-9 at Peoria, Ill., in 1985, and 4-3 in 8 games at Pittsfield, Mass., in ’86, when he was promoted to triple-A Iowa in Des Moines. He won 10 of 11 decisions and earned a late-season promotion to the Cubs. In Chicago, he went 2-4 in 6 games, logging an 8-3 victory over Mike and the Phillies, the only time they have pitched against each other.

The 1987 season opened amid promise. In a late-April to mid-May streak, Maddux won three straight, beating the Giants, San Diego Padres and Houston Astros. He was so young, so baby-faced, the Cubs called him Batboy. They called him Mad Dog--still do, sometimes--a takeoff on Maddux and his occasional displays of temper on the mound, which are most often directed at himself for a bad pitch.

But the early promise faded with summer. He didn’t win in 11 starts at Wrigley Field after April 29. He didn’t win at all for the Cubs after July 24. He was optioned to Iowa twice in August and went 3-0, improving his two-year triple-A record to 13-1. Should he have spent the entire ’87 season there, gaining that much more momentum, experience and confidence?

“I had already proved myself in triple-A,” he said, referring to his 10-1 record of 1986. “The next step was to prove myself in the majors, but it was a struggle.

“I threw fastball after fastball and couldn’t get people out. There was always one thing or another weighing on my mind. I was always thinking, ‘What do I have to do to win? What do I have to do to turn it around?’

“I thought my stuff was as good as guys who were winning, but after a while you begin to doubt yourself.”

Maddux found reassurance and something of a new approach at Maracaibo in the Venezuelan Winter League, where he was reunited with pitching coach Dick Pole, who was his pitching coach at Pittsfield in ’86 and Iowa in ’87.

Pole is now pitching coach of the Cubs, and in 28 starts when they have been together, Maddux is 20-6 with 12 complete games and 7 shutouts.

“Dick is something of a redneck, and I think I need that tough approach,” Maddux said. “I think I need someone hammering at me.”

Said Pole: “There are just some people you relate to better than others. It’s hard to explain. Greg is an intelligent kid. He’s easy to work with. He has a good feel for pitching and you’ve got to be born with that or have it developed at an early age. I think his high school coach did a hell of a job.”

Maddux stands 6-feet tall but weighs only 150 pounds. His fastball is generally in the high 80s, but people talk of it more in terms of movement than velocity. “As much movement as I’ve ever seen on a fastball,” said Wally Backman, Met second baseman.

In Venezuela, Pole persuaded Maddux to stop trying to throw it past hitters, to keep it down in the strike zone. Pole further persuaded Maddux to throw his curve and changeup when behind in the count, preventing hitters from sitting on the fastball. Together, they made adjustments in the curve’s mechanics.

Said Pole: “Greg has a real live fastball that’s tough enough to hit when you know it’s coming. Now he’s mixing in those other pitches and it makes the fastball that much tougher. He always had a good curve and changeup, but when he couldn’t get them over early in a game, he gave up on them. He’d get in a jam and try to throw the ball through a wall.”

Said Maddux: “Guys who are 6-14 don’t hang around long. I knew I needed another off-speed pitch. I still don’t have a good one, but it’s something to put in the hitter’s mind.”

Said Steve Stone, a former Cy Young Award winner who is Harry Caray’s partner on Cub telecasts: “Greg has the confidence now that he can underthrow and get people out. He understands now that it’s better to take something off than put something on. If his average fastball is 88 (m.p.h.), it’s better to throw it 85 and have it sink than 91 and have it up and flat. Plus, his athleticism (he was fourth among major league pitchers with 50 assists last year) and competitiveness are two of his biggest assets.”

Maddux believes there are other factors involved as well:

--He believes in an improved Cub defense and is willing to let hitters, in Pole’s words, whack at his pitches rather than being too fine. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is 2 to 1.

--He has a 7-2 record in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field and is convinced that with the high infield grass, a wind that blows in as often as out and the shadows during mid-afternoon starts, it is the best pitcher’s park in the league.

--He has a “better feel” of what the major leagues and his teammates are all about and is “more comfortable just being here.”

The Cubs, nurturing a legacy left by Dallas Green, have 10 home-grown players on the varsity roster. They have been called the team of tomorrow, but Maddux is indicative of how they are making it happen now.

“It’s nice playing with a lot of the guys I started in with,” he said. “I think it helps us on and off the field.”

Off the field, Maddux maintains a low profile, sharing a Chicago apartment with girlfriend Kathy Ronnow of Las Vegas. He and the other young Cubs kill time on the road with high-intensity Nintendo tournaments.

It’s that intensity in Maddux and the other young Cubs that Andre Dawson said he admires.

“They demand a lot of themselves, which makes their work habits that much better,” he said. “They’re not just content to have made it to the big leagues.”

Added part-time coach Jimmy Piersall: “I think that one of the big things Maddux has going for him now is that he knows he can handle 6-14. He’s handled that pressure and frustration, and that’s something you never know about a young player.”

Said Mike Maddux, who was ticketed for a berth in the Phillies’ rotation but has been sidelined until this week by an elbow injury: “Greg is putting the ball where he wants. He’s a year older and a year better. Am I envious? Sure. I’d love to have that going for me, but I’m confident I will. And I’m happy for Greg. I know how much he struggled last year. I know he wasn’t having any fun.”

Greg Maddux’s fun is expected to include an invitation to the July 12 All-Star game, though it is doubtful he will pitch in it. The Cubs are in Los Angeles this weekend, but Maddux will next pitch Monday in San Francisco, then Sunday in San Diego, two days before the All-Star game. Zimmer said nothing was changed, that it is just the way the rotation worked out, that he would love to have seen Maddux pitch in the All-Star game.

Said Maddux: “I’d like to pitch in it, but just being there will be good enough.”

And he will probably have other chances. “I don’t see him getting anything but better,” Pole said.


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