With Greg Maddux, appearances deceiving

When Hall of Famer came up with Cubs, he certainly didn't look intimidating but it wasn't long before crafty competitiveness took over

Greg Maddux arrived in the major leagues in 1986 with a sterling reputation and a wicked pitch repertoire.

The 20-year-old was not amused when he received unflattering nicknames from veterans.

"I remember the day he got there," former Cubs pitcher Ed Lynch told me this week. "We heard about this kid who was something like (14-4 at Triple-A) Iowa and a high draft pick (second round) and he just had these incredible minor league numbers. We heard he was coming up so we were waiting in the clubhouse for this big, strapping guy. And in walks Maddux."

The youthful-looking Maddux with an unremarkable physical presence was subjected instantly to the usual rookie bashing.

"Lee Smith immediately gave him the nickname of "The Batboy" because he looked like he was 12 years old," Lynch said. "And I used to tease him all the time. When he would come in, I would say: 'Hey, kid, bring me some cream and sugar.' Or 'Get me some diet Coke, no ice.' He would return a barrage of expletives. He knew it was all in fun."

And, of course, it is Maddux who is having the last laugh 28 years later as a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

I was the Tribune's Cubs beat writer when Maddux began his career and earned his first big league victory in Cincinnati.

Maddux went 2-4 that year and 3-0 at Iowa to start 1987 before going just 6-14 back with the Cubs the rest of that season. The consensus then seemed to be that Maddux would become a serviceable big league pitcher.

Even his minor league pitching coach, Jim Colborn, told me in '86 that he had reservations about Maddux ever becoming a star.

"I don't think it's fair to expect Greg to lead the league in strikeouts," Colborn said then. "But he should have a good big-league career. He's a good competitor and he's fun to watch, especially knowing that he has just finished his paper route a couple of years ago. He's one of my favorite pitchers."

After 355 career victories, four Cy Young Awards and now the Hall of Fame, Maddux proved all of his critics came up short in assessing his potential.

Dick Pole was the Cubs pitching coach in '88 and helped develop Maddux. Pole often called pitches for him from the dugout, according to Lynch.

"Even after 1987, I knew he was going to be a good pitcher for a long time because he had that rubber arm. He was flexible and he used his pitches economically," Lynch said. "But if you had told me he was going to win 355 games and be called the greatest pitcher since Walter Johnson, I would have to think twice before I would sign on to that.

"When he first came up, he was a totally different pitcher than he was in his huge years in the '90s (with the Braves). He obviously didn't have the command when he was a very young kid like he did later on. But one thing he did have was competitive fire. Man, I'm telling you …

"I remember one day he got hit around pretty hard. And he was sitting at his locker after the game. I went up and I patted him on the back. I expected him to say: 'Well, I'll try to get better,' or whatever. But he just turned around and looked at me like I had walked up on a Doberman eating its food. He just turned around and snapped: 'I'll get those (expletives) next time!' I was like, wow! That wasn't the reaction I expected. He is a fierce, fierce competitor, and very, very smart. Never made the same mental mistake twice."

Lynch, who was acquired in a trade with the Mets on June 30, 1986, and retired after the '87 season, later became the Cubs general manager (1994-2000). He now scouts big league pitchers for the Blue Jays.

"If you look at his delivery, (Maddux) had the perfect delivery. You could put a glass of water on his head. When he threw that ball, you felt that glass wouldn't spill," Lynch said. "His head was perfectly perpendicular. His head isn't snapping and his head isn't tilting. He is looking directly at the target and he is following through to the target. He understood that it is about upsetting timing and throwing the ball where you're aiming. He was a master at that."

fmitchell@tribune.com

twitter @kicker34

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