On the pitching mound, Greg Maddux was the antithesis of what Las Vegas is perceived to be. In the popular imagination, Maddux’s hometown is known for bombast, instant gratification and self-absorption. He embodied none of those traits. In establishing himself as one of the greatest pitchers in Major League Baseball history, Maddux instead proved to be reliable, workmanlike, unassuming and durable. Despite his individual greatness—the man won 355 games and four Cy Young Awards—he remained humble, and always put his team first.
Standing barely 6 feet tall and throwing a fastball that averaged about 85 mph, Maddux dominated hitters throughout his 23-year big league career, thriving as a finesse pitcher in a power era, relying as much on his mind as on his physical ability. On July 27, he will be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, earning immortality as one of the 306 legends elected into the sport’s shrine.
Maddux’s achievements in the major leagues are well-documented, but this is the story about how he evolved into an all-time great while growing up in Las Vegas, as told by the men who knew him at Valley High School and watched him develop on the diamond, just a normal kid armed with the ability to make a baseball dance.
In 1976, Dave and Linda Maddux moved with their three children, Mike, Terri and Greg, from Madrid to Las Vegas, the last stop in Dave’s 22-year Air Force career. Greg, the youngest child, had been born April 14, 1966, in San Angelo, Texas, and was in fourth grade when the family arrived in Las Vegas. His brother, Mike, became a pitching star at Rancho High School and graduated in 1979 before heading off to the University of Texas-El Paso on a baseball scholarship. That same year, Dave Maddux retired from the military, and the family moved into a house on Rawhide Street, in the southeast part of the Valley. Greg, then 13 years old, attended Cannon Junior High, where he played on the school’s softball and basketball teams.
Doug Morski (Maddux’s childhood friend and his catcher at Valley High School): Back when Greg was younger, he was a string bean. He’d ride his bike, and everyone would call him Kermit the Frog, because he was so skinny. He looked like Kermit in The Muppet Movie.
Even as a young teenager, Maddux showed the form that would eventually win him four consecutive Cy Young Awards and prompt many of the best hitters in baseball history to marvel at his pitching acumen.
Morski: His family had a pool, so that was the big hot spot. We’d play basketball, and then we’d go and swim in the pool. We would play a lot of whiffle ball. That was the big thing back then; we would play constantly. We even had a pool derivative of whiffle ball. He would pitch, and it was just amazing the things he would do with a whiffle ball. I’m sure that helped him make a baseball move. It was just crazy.
When he was 14 years old, Maddux began attending informal workouts at Valley High School conducted by Ralph Meder, a longtime baseball coach who had moved to Las Vegas in 1958. Many of Southern Nevada’s top prospects attended the offseason Sunday sessions, including such professional players as Mike Maddux, Mike Morgan, Marty Barrett and Tom Barrett. Meder downplayed the importance of velocity to the young pitchers under his tutelage, and instead emphasized changing speeds, movement and location. Greg Maddux has often credited Meder, who died in 1983 at the age of 69, with changing his arm angle to give his pitches more movement.
Morski: Going to Meder’s workouts helped anyone. That was the place you wanted to be. And our junior year, Greg was really ramping it up. He was always going. And his brother was five years ahead of him, so I think Greg learned a lot from him, too.
Doug Mapson (longtime baseball scout): When Ralph Meder used to work out all the kids on Sundays, all of us who scouted would head over there and just watch the kids work out and get a feel for them. That was an invaluable asset, not only for us scouts but also for those kids, because they learned a lot pitching and playing in that informal gathering. Even some of the pro guys would come back and help. It was just a really good baseball situation in Las Vegas back then.
Maddux played on Valley High School’s junior varsity baseball team as a sophomore, and the following year he was promoted, earning a spot as one of coach Rodger Fairless’ starting pitchers on the varsity squad.
Sam Thomas (Valley High catcher and current Las Vegas High head baseball coach): This was the pitching staff my senior year [in 1983]: You had Mike Greer, who was a senior and was drafted in the fifth round by the Cleveland Indians; you had Greg Maddux, enough said, who was a junior; and you had Steve Chitren, a sophomore, who was a two-time College World Series champion at Stanford and pitched for the Oakland A’s. That’s quite a résumé those guys put together. Back then, we played three times a week, so anytime you were running up against those three guys, you were in trouble.”
Morski: Midway through our junior year, and when we were at Meder’s [workouts], it was amazing how Greg’s ball was starting to jump, and the movement on it. He didn’t have that much velocity [initially]; it was more movement. We had three other pitchers [at Valley] who threw harder than he did, but it was just the movement he had, the changeup, the curveball. His curveball was deadly. He really didn’t use his curve that much in the pros, though, because his changeup was so amazing. Our junior year, though, the velocity started to get up there, too.
Rodger Fairless (Valley High baseball coach): Greg’s junior year, I had a couple of other pitchers and players that scouts were looking at, and then Greg would pitch and they would go, “Wow!” I think the scouts would see how free his [throwing motion] was and how fluid he was, and he had great movement on his fastball. Even then, his movement was his whole key to pitching, whether it was the changeup or the fastball. And that’s something you can’t teach.
Gene Handley, then the Western scouting supervisor for the Chicago Cubs, went to Valley to scout senior pitcher Mike Greer. But it was an undersized junior right-hander who caught his attention. Handley phoned his area scout, Doug Mapson, who went to take a closer look at Maddux.
Mapson: He was very athletic; he competed, kept the ball down, threw strikes. If you had a checklist of things you’re supposed to see in a pitcher when you scout, you could have probably checked them all from the first time I saw him throw. He looked like a professional pitcher even as a high school kid.
Fairless: Greg had the best changeup that I’ve ever seen. I can remember one Saturday, we were working out, and two guys who were in the minor leagues with Kansas City asked if they could come play in our scrimmage. I said, “Sure, you can at least take some cuts.” Greg was pitching, and after the scrimmage these two minor league players came up to me and said that he had a better changeup than guys in the major leagues.
Thomas: Greg wasn’t … I don’t want to say competitive, because he was the most competitive person I’ve ever met. But he didn’t come out like it was that serious. We would work hard, but it was like another day for Greg. That’s just the way he was, very relaxed. It was almost carefree.
Fairless: You knew when you put him on the mound that he was going to compete. He was always going to be around the strike zone. As a coach, you never expected anything to go haywire, where he couldn’t throw strikes or get outs.
In the 1983 zone playoffs, Maddux pitched a complete game in a 4-0 victory over Basic High, limiting the Wolves to three hits while striking out nine batters in what was the best game of his career to that point. He bettered that performance in the opening game of the state tournament at UNLV, holding Reno to just two hits and striking out seven in an 8-0 victory, while improving his record to 8-1. The following day, the Vikings (25-3) won their second state title in three years with a 5-2 victory as Maddux relieved Greer in the final inning, walking the first hitter he faced to load the bases before retiring the next three batters, two on strikeouts, to end the game.
Fairless: The thing that I always admired about Greg was that he was never a guy who wanted to put a show on because he did well. He’s always been pretty levelheaded. The best way I can describe Greg is [he’s] like Superman: When he’s in his suit and glasses, you could never imagine that that same guy could be on the baseball field and be the fierce competitor he is because of his whole demeanor. I always wanted my players to be tough—not necessarily fighting-wise, but tough competitors. And, to me, Greg is the epitome of that. I’ve seen a lot of emotion from him, like he would get really pissed if he would make a mistake or make an error, which was very seldom. Don’t get me wrong, he had emotions, but he knew how to control them. It wouldn’t go more than one pitch. He knew what he needed to do.
Maddux might have been all business once a guy stepped into the batter’s box, but there’s another side to him that belied his no-nonsense approach to getting hitters out. Over his big league career, Maddux earned a reputation as a notorious prankster—an inclination that was established long before he got to the majors.
Morski: We would have pool parties over at his house; everyone would be in the backyard, and he had an old stereo set up and the speakers were out there. His brother had a microphone that he was able to hook into it, and Greg would lock himself in his room and he’d DJ. He would sing and tell jokes, and play music that half the people didn’t like. He was torturing us. He was always a jokester. He was pretty disgusting at times, to be honest, certain things he would do. But that was just growing up and being a kid.
Thomas: Before the start of one game, Greg takes his eight warm-up pitches, and I throw down to second. Usually, I would walk out and talk to whoever was pitching and let them know Coach was calling the game, or whatever. So I walked out there to Greg, and I said, “It’s me and you. You’re calling it.” And he started singing. Eddie Rabbitt [and Crystal Gayle], they did a duet called “You and I,” and he started singing that, and I fell into singing it with him, and we’re on the mound. It was maybe just two lines of the song, but I’m running back to the plate and I’m thinking, “What a goofball.” Every time I look over to the dugout I’m scared for my job, and this guy is out there singing an Eddie Rabbitt song.
Maddux earned the nicknamed “The Professor” during his major league career for his ability to baffle batters, always seeming to throw the right pitch at the right time. Even facing high school hitters, he was trying to outthink his opponents, relying on his wits as much as his arm.
Morski: Greg would shake Fairless off every now and then, and I would go, “Oh man, it’s either going to be me or him that’s going to get in trouble!” But he would shake him off and then throw a pretty good pitch and strike a guy out, so I don’t think Fairless would say a word. But if he walked him or the guy got a hit, we’d be running laps. So we pretty much stuck to Coach’s calls.
Fairless: We used to always call the pitches, and Greg would always come in on the day he was going to pitch and ask, “Hey, can I call my own pitches?” And I would say, “No, get the hell out of my office.” And one day we were going to play Eldorado, and he came in again and asked if he could call his own pitches. And finally I said, “You know what, I’m going to let you call your own game today.” Now, Greg’s changeup was like a major league changeup, but when a kid has a slow bat, throwing a changeup is not a good thing to do. He was throwing fastballs past them, but he knew his changeup was good, so he would throw changeups. We ended up losing the game, and when we got done I told him, “That’s why you don’t call your own game.”
During his major league career, Maddux won a record 18 Gold Glove Awards, including 13 straight from 1990 to 2002, for his fielding prowess, displaying a dexterity that allowed him to excel in just about every sport he tried growing up.
Fairless: From his sophomore to his junior year, his body had matured, and that’s when you started to realize that he was a pretty good athlete. I can remember sitting in the gym one day when the kids were in there for P.E. and watching him play basketball, and there’s no doubt that he could have made the basketball team. And that’s when guys like [future UNLV star] Freddie Banks were there. Greg could jump, and he could shoot; he had a lot of ability. To be honest, I kinda led him away from that, especially after his junior year, because I wanted him to concentrate on baseball.
Freddie Banks (Valley High basketball star): Greg was going to come out for basketball when he was a junior, and he was a heck of a basketball player. He could shoot the ball, pass the ball. But the thing about both of our coaches—Coach Fairless and Coach [Bill] Bobier—was when you had talent in either baseball or basketball, they wouldn’t allow you to play the other sport. They felt, “OK, he has the potential to be a great player, so I’m not going to let him play basketball and get hurt, or I’m not going to let him play baseball and get hurt.” Greg played JV ball, but he never got the chance to play varsity. He absolutely would have made the varsity team.
Morski: I was into racquetball, and it wasn’t that big of a sport way back then. I’d say, “C’mon Greg, let’s go play some racquetball.” So we went to UNLV, and I thought, “OK, I’m going to smoke him.” And, damn it, I couldn’t believe it, he grabs a racket and we started playing, and he kicks my ass in racquetball! And I had been playing for about a year or so!
Thomas: Greg was so laid-back, and it was fun to him. There were some of us who didn’t have the talent and were working our asses off and running around scared. I was more concerned about how much we were going to run that day, how many times was I going to throw up that day. And here’s Greg, who was about 130 pounds and could run forever. We had to run two miles in under 13 minutes and 30 seconds to be on the team, and Greg would finish in like 11:30. You’re like, “Go run track!” He’s sprinting on his last lap! Everything was so easy to him. I don’t want to sound like I was jealous; it was more like I was just in awe of what he could do.
Entering the 1984 postseason as the defending state champion, Valley defeated Western 8-0 in the opening game of the zone playoffs as Maddux, who was playing shortstop that day, hit a first-inning grand slam to right-center field. It was the third homer of the season for Maddux, who led the Vikings that year with a .346 batting average.
Fairless: Greg always thought he was a good hitter, but I didn’t think he was that good. Plus, he always wanted to play another position [when he wasn’t pitching], so every once in a while I would let him play center field or shortstop, but I knew that he was more valuable to our team as a pitcher.”
Thomas: There was one time when Greg and Rodger got into it, in a plain way. And I’m sitting there catching during batting practice, and I’m thinking, “You can’t talk to Coach Fairless like that. What are you doing?” And they’re going back and forth; Greg was hitting. And they had a home run contest, and Fairless was trying to throw harder and throw breaking balls and stuff, and Greg hit three out on him. But that’s just the confidence he had. It was amazing.
Maddux threw a no-hitter against Bonanza in 1984, and allowed just one hit in 14 innings in two starts versus the Bengals during the regular season. He faced Bonanza again in the second game of the zone playoffs, striking out 11 batters in a six-hit complete game, but lost 2-0. The following day, Eldorado beat Valley 3-1 to end the Vikings’ season and Maddux’s high school career.
Morski: That game that we lost to Bonanza, he was doing his damnedest to try to win the game. He was trying to do it all. We just couldn’t hit the ball. But he was always a team player. He would never get mad at anyone else. He was a pretty cool guy on the diamond.
Fairless: He was the ultimate team player, even in the majors, which I have always admired about him. There was no individualism with Greg; he was always pretty grounded. I don’t think Greg cared about his stats; I don’t think he even knew what his stats were. It was always about what he had to do in order for the team to win. And when you’ve coached somebody like that, and that’s what you tried to instill in them when they were young, and then they carry that on, that’s what makes you proud of them.
Mapson: You have to originally give Ralph Meder credit, but during the course of the season, you have to give Rodger all the credit in the world for developing Greg on a long-term basis. He made sure that guys had the proper tools to pitch with, knew how to think out on the mound and he didn’t get guys hurt. They were in good shape to pitch, and he didn’t overuse them. Rodger is one of the best high school coaches I’ve ever been around, and I’ve been scouting for 33 years now, and coached for 10 years prior to that.
Maddux finished his senior year with a record of 8-2, striking out 91 batters in 59 2/3 innings. He went 16-3 in his two years playing for Valley, and was named the 11th-best high school pitcher in the nation by Baseball America. He signed a national letter of intent to play baseball at the University of Arizona, but was selected early in the second round of Major League Baseball’s June free-agent draft by the Chicago Cubs. Maddux had a decision to make.
Morski: Greg was actually quite nonchalant about it, maybe because his brother had already been drafted before him [by the Philadelphia Phillies in the fifth round of the 1982 draft]. He was excited, but it wasn’t really like he was cheering or it was that big a deal.
Mapson: I made six trips to Las Vegas to sign him, and I never really met Greg until the final time, when he signed. He had gone on his senior trip to Hawaii, and so I just sat in their living room and negotiated with his dad. I’d come over from Southern California, where I lived, and would make him a little better offer, and his dad would say, “No, no. That’s not good enough.” And I’d say, “OK, I’ll see you in a few days.” A couple of thousand dollars meant a lot back then. I think Greg got $75,000, which was far more than we ever gave a second-round pick. I said in one meeting with his dad, “If your son is as good as you say he is, his bonus will be pocket change.” And as it turns out, his dad was very right.
In Mapson’s scouting report on Maddux, he wrote, “I really believe that this boy would possibly be the number-one player taken in the country if only he looked a bit more physical.”
Mapson: Greg kind of broke the mold. There was a real reluctance to sign sub-6-foot right-handers up until that point, and after Greg people started looking at guys a little bit differently. I think had it been [years later], Greg would have been a surefire first-round guy.
Fairless: I had kids in my career who have thrown harder and maybe had a better curveball, but we all knew he would be drafted. It’s obvious that Doug Mapson took a gamble on him, because I don’t know if that many people had him projected to go that high. There are a lot of factors that play into what a kid ends up doing. Most kids don’t get drafted now unless they throw 90 [mph]. And if you have 300 kids across the country who are all throwing 90, it’s obvious that something separates the ones who make it from the ones who don’t, because they all have close to the same ability, but those 300 kids who are drafted as pitchers don’t all make it to the majors. Greg is a unique individual. I think his mental makeup separated him. He never got too upset, and I don’t think pressure ever affected him.”
Mapson: You know his brother, Mike, was an awfully good pitcher [playing for nine teams in a 15-year major league career, finishing with a 39-37 record in 472 games] and is one of the most respected pitching coaches in the game now [with the Texas Rangers]. I told their mom and dad that I wish they would have had a few more kids, because they did really good with those two boys.
After signing with Chicago on June 19, 1984, Maddux reported to the Cubs’ rookie-league team in Pikeville, Kentucky, and quickly progressed through the minors. He made his major league debut on September 2, 1986, at the age of 20, getting the loss in an 8-7 defeat to the Houston Astros at Wrigley Field after allowing a solo home run to Billy Hatcher in the 18th inning. By 1988, Maddux was a National League All-Star, and on July 27 he will officially become a baseball immortal in Cooperstown, New York.
Thomas: I worked a baseball camp in Denver [in June], and there was an older gentleman there who was also working the camp, and he walked up to me out of the blue and said, “I hear that you caught the world’s greatest pitcher.” And I said, “No sir, I didn’t catch Sandy Koufax. Oh, you mean the world’s greatest right-handed pitcher. Yeah, I did.” And I’m very, very proud of that.
HALL OF FAME INDUCTION
Greg Maddux will be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, on July 27, along with former Atlanta Braves teammate Tom Glavine, slugger Frank Thomas and managers Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa and Joe Torre. The induction ceremony will be broadcast on MLB Network at 10:30 a.m. PDT.
About the Storytellers
Freddie Banks, a three-time Nevada basketball player of the year at Valley High School, led the Vikings to three consecutive state championships (1981-83). Banks, now the head basketball coach at Canyon Springs High, is UNLV’s fourth all-time leading scorer and was inducted into the Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Fame in 2010.
Rodger Fairless, who coached Maddux at Valley High School, won six state baseball titles with the Vikings in the 1980s. A 2004 Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Fame inductee, Fairless won 12 state championships in 19 years at Eldorado, Valley and Green Valley high schools, compiling a record of 493-80.
Doug Mapson, who is in his 34th year as a professional baseball scout, signed Maddux to a contract with the Chicago Cubs in 1984. Mapson is now in his 22nd year working for the San Francisco Giants, serving as the team’s national cross-checker for the past nine seasons.
Doug Morski, a close friend of Maddux’s since 1979, graduated from Valley High School in 1984 and played catcher for the Vikings. He has worked at the Tropicana’s front desk for 26 years, been a bellman at the TI for eight years and is the co-owner of Ms. Sharon’s Pet Sitting.
Sam Thomas, a 1983 graduate of Valley High School, was the Vikings’ starting catcher during Maddux’s junior year. Since 1999, Thomas has been the head baseball coach at Las Vegas High School, where he coached Major League Baseball first-round draft picks Bryce Harper and Erick Fedde.
- First pitcher in MLB history to win four straight Cy Young Awards (1992-95).
- Only pitcher in MLB history to win at least 15 games for 17 straight seasons.
- Won an MLB-record 18 Gold Glove Awards.
- In 23 major league seasons, spent only 15 days on the disabled list: a two-week stint in 2002 with an inflamed nerve in his lower back.
- When he made his MLB debut in 1986, he was the youngest player in the league (20 years old); when played his final game in 2008, he was the fourth-oldest player (42).
- Only pitcher in MLB history to record at least 300 wins and 3,000 strikeouts with fewer than 1,000 walks.
- In 1994-95, became the first pitcher to post back-to-back ERAs under 1.80 since Walter Johnson in 1918-19.
- Named to eight National League All-Star teams.
- In August 1997, signed a five-year, $57.5 million contract that made him the highest-paid player in baseball.
Editor Matt Jacob talks “The Making of Greg Maddux” on 97.1 the Point. Listen to the broadcast below.