Jul 25, 2014, 11:19 AM EDT
Greg Maddux looked like a guy who should be riding a Metra commuter train to his 9-to-5 job in the Loop, maybe sneaking out later to catch a Cubs game and have a few beers at Wrigley Field.
Maddux didn’t do intimidation or scream Hall of Famer, even while becoming one of the greatest pitchers of all-time. So imagine him coming out of Valley High School in Las Vegas, as a teenager in instructional league, failing all the eye tests.
“We had a bunch of older coaches, and guys would bring their sons out there and stuff like that,” Mike Brumley recalled Thursday. “This little skinny guy walks by me, and I’m like, ‘Hey, is that one of the coaches’ sons?’ And they go, ‘No, that’s our second-rounder.’
“I go, ‘No way!’ Because he was just like super-little.”
Brumley, now an assistant hitting coach for the Cubs, smiled at the memories after batting practice at Wrigley Field, because it’s crazy to think about it now. Three decades later, it would become a mini-controversy when Maddux wasn’t unanimously selected to the Hall of Fame, getting only 97.2 percent of the vote from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.
But Brumley heard about the legend of Maddux long before Sunday’s induction ceremony in Cooperstown, N.Y. Brumley’s buddy from Las Vegas knew Maddux’s older brother, Mike, who’s now the Texas Rangers pitching coach.
“Back in the winter, in the 80s, they used to go to UNLV and they’d play a Sunday pickup game, college guys, pro guys that lived there,” Brumley said. “Mike was always (there), but he said they didn’t have enough pitchers. So one day Mike said, ‘Hey, I got a 15-year-old brother, I’m going to bring him out and let him throw a couple innings.’ (I heard Greg) was lights-out at 15, 16.”
Brumley had played with Roger Clemens at the University of Texas and knew what “The Rocket” looked like. The Boston Red Sox packaged Brumley and Dennis Eckersley and sent them to the Cubs in the 1984 Bill Buckner trade.
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Fast forward to the third or fourth game in instructional league, where Brumley’s routine would have him standing in the box to get his timing down while the starting pitcher threw warm-up pitches.
“(Maddux) was like 18 or 19,” Brumley recalled. “He was like, ‘Fastball, away.’ And it was (just), ‘Wham!’
“Fastball in? The first thing you want to do is not get hit in the bullpen, right? And I mean it was just like, ‘Wham! Wham!’ His command was unbelievable the first time I ever saw him.”
They played together in 1986 at Triple-A Iowa, where Maddux went 10-1 with a 3.02 ERA in an American Association league that was supposed to be brutal for pitchers.
“All of the pitchers would be like: ‘The ball doesn’t break in Denver, yada, yada, yada,’” Brumley said. “That whole league was like that. In Oklahoma City, the ball flew out, and I mean he cut that league up. It was unbelievable. And I would always (ask): ‘How come Maddux’s ball breaks in Denver?’
“They’d get all pissed off, and Maddux couldn’t care less if the wind’s blowing out in Oklahoma City. I saw him do so many special things.”
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Where other young pitchers would just worry about getting their 94 mph fastball over the plate, Maddux would already be reading hitters for reactions, anticipating the next moves, showing signs of the guy who would win four straight Cy Young awards between 1992 and 1995.
“Greg had an ability early on — he could just see it,” Brumley said. “It’s special now, but it was special before he was Greg Maddux, too.”