The best pitchers have a short memory and a bulletproof confidence. --Greg Maddux
By T. Michael Stone
Greg Maddux is a baseball deity. He won four Cy Young Awards, 18 Gold Gloves and was voted into the MLB Hall of Fame in 2014.
But when he made his major league debut, he stank it up.
Maddux was brought in as a pinch-runner in the bottom of the 17th inning of a game that had started on Sept. 2, 1986, but had been suspended due to darkness and resumed the next day with the Cubs and Astros tied at 7-7.
Wrigley Field hadn't installed lights yet in 1986.
The Cubs failed to score and stranded Maddux at second base. He took the mound in the top of the 18th, and promptly gave up a dinger to Billy Hatcher. The Cubs then failed to score and lost.
Cubs fans in attendance probably had no idea they were shouting derogatory things at a future HOFer.
"You blew it, rookie."
"Send the bum back to Pittsfield."
But if Maddux's major league debut was forgettable, my major league debut was not.
At least not for me.
The memory popped up during an email exchange about Netflix I had with a coworker. I had recommended she watch the film *"Moneyball" starring Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, the General Manager of the Oakland A's.
In the film, a scout tells a young Billy Beane that baseball is for the young. "We're all told at some point in time that we can no longer play the children's game. Some of us are told at 18, some of us are told at 40, but we're all told."*
Unfortunately, my baseball career ended at the age of 12, so when I say my major league debut, I'm talking about the Dixie League majors (11- and 12-year-olds back then).
I emailed the coworker a photo of me wearing my uniform as a little leaguer, and she asked me what position I played. That question made me think of something I had not thought about in a long time: The four innings when I was as good as Greg Maddux.
I played for the Braves in a six-team league that included the Cardinals, Dodgers, Giants, Yankees and Pirates.
The Braves weren't very good, and we finished the 15-game schedule with four wins and 11 losses.
We did beat the first-place Cardinals once, but we never beat the Pirates. The humiliating thing about that was the Pirates finished dead last with only three wins, all of them against us.
I played mostly in the outfield and I was good at it; but in my mind, the cool kids played infield positions and the coolest of them all was the pitcher, a lofty position I thought was unattainable for me.
Our game day routine was fairly predictable. We'd arrive at the ballpark, shag some flies, field some grounders and wait for the manager to show us the lineup and tell us who was pitching.
Since I was not a pitcher, this was not something I spent much time worrying about. I just hoped to get one of my infrequent hits in the upcoming game.
The manager's son was probably our best pitcher and the assistant coach's son was nearly his equal. Both generally held opponents to less than 10 runs over six innings. We had two other pitchers, but they seemed to enjoy watching line drives dent metal signs bolted to the chain link fence in the outfield.
Because I didn't want to watch one of my fastballs sail over that fence into the thick strand of pine trees beyond it, I never even asked to pitch. But on this particular afternoon, the manager called me over and asked me if I'd like to give it a go. You don't say no to the manager, so as petrified as I was at the idea, I said I would try.
He showed me how to throw a two-seam fastball and when I started warming up, I felt like the grip helped me to control where the ball was going.
Maybe I can do this after all.
My dad was at the game, and I saw him hop down from the stands and walk around the backstop to foul territory in right field where I was warming up with the manager. When my dad got close enough, he scolded the manager.
"Who do you call yourself doing?" he said. "Mike's not a pitcher."
The manager's reply was classic.
"He can't do any worse than the rest of 'em, Tom," he said. Which could have been taken as an insult, but it was actually comforting. "If I stink, I'll have plenty of company," I thought to myself.
As I walked out to the mound, I wondered if any girls my age were in the crowd watching me. Me, the conquering hero. When I finished warming up, I realized that I stood at the center of the cosmic orrery, that nothing happened until I allowed it to happen. I was now a deity myself.
Watch this, sweetheart. See the high leg kick. I learned that from Juan Marichal. Watch me now. I'm a right-handed Sandy Koufax. I'm about to announce my presence with authority.
Then I walked the first Pirate hitter on four pitches.
I complained to the catcher that the batter was practically standing on top of the plate, and I feared I would hit him. "If you're walking in the middle of the road and you get hit by a bus, who's to blame?" Fair enough, I thought.
The next time that Pirate hitter came to bat, he got the old brush back pitch. By that point, I was the 12-year-old equivalent of Bob Gibson, a flame thrower not to be trifled with, the ace of the staff mowing down Pirate hitters like bowling pins.
In the top of the fifth, we were leading 1-0 when the manager came out and asked me if I was tired.And I was. I had never thrown so many baseballs so hard in such a short period of time in my entire life. I was probably close to needing Tommy John surgery.
So, he brought in a relief pitcher who promptly squandered the lead while I watched helplessly from my spot at the third base. At least I got the hot corner for a couple of innings.
We lost 4-3, and I never got to pitch again. My absence from the mound thwarted my chance to be on a box of Wheaties. No fan club of adoring female fans was ever formed, so I never got the chance to sing "Go Away Little Girl" and appear on the cover of Tiger Beat magazine.
Before every game that followed, I wanted to remind our manager that I hadn't given up a run and had an ERA of 0.00, which I thought was pretty impressive. I also had seven strikeouts, or at least that's the number I settled on for this retelling of the story.
Many years later, when my son, Parker, was 12 years old, he wound up pitching for the Rockdale Recreation League Braves (he wore No. 11 like I did). He was a quick worker like Maddux and he threw strikes, but his coaches didn't appreciate his potential either. A family curse, I suppose. But good pitching often goes unappreciated.
It's like that Nike commercial Maddux and Tom Glavine made back in 1999. The narrative of the commercial suggests that although both pitchers had won Cy Young awards, the gorgeous Heather Locklear remained infatuated with the power-hitting Mark McGwire who had belted 70 homers in 1998.
At the end of the spot, Maddux concludes that "Chicks dig the long ball."
C'est la vie.
*Moneyball -- screenplay by Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian. Story by Stan Chervin. Based on the book by Michael Lewis.
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Story by T. Michael Stone, published in Lakelife magazine, May-June 2022 and is the property of Smith Communications, Inc. No portions of the story or photos may be copied or used without written consent from the publisher. A short video by Michael Stone of his son's recreation league experience may be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iiYil7pZv6k