Maddux ready to make return to Cubs

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 7, 2004

CINCINNATI - The jersey fits Greg Maddux perfectly.

There's nothing jarring about seeing him in Cubs blue, his name arched above the No. 31 on the flip side. They go together so perfectly that the jersey almost seems like a part of him.

At one time, it was. Now, it is again.

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His career will come full-circle on Wednesday night when he makes his first start for the team that got him started. He'll face the Cincinnati Reds for the 41st time in his career, this time with Chicago.

"I hope I don't feel any different," Maddux said. "Hopefully I'll have the same amount of butterflies as in the past. It's a new team, but the same game. That's the attitude I take. I'm doing the same thing I've always done, I'm just wearing a different shirt."

His first big-league shirt had a cub on the sleeve.

He was still learning how to effectively change speeds and harness his array of darting pitches when he made it to the majors for the first time with Chicago in 1986. He spent the next six years with the Cubs, then set off for Atlanta after a breakthrough season in 1992.

He won 20 games for the first time that year and the first of his four consecutive Cy Young awards, a streak that marks him as one of the greatest pitchers of all time. He led the National League with a 1.63 ERA and 10 complete games in 1995, when Atlanta won the World Series.

Maddux, who turns 38 on April 14, returned to the Cubs as a free agent in February, going back to his roots and a team that's hoping to get back to the World Series for the first time since 1945.

How he does will have a lot to do with how the Cubs end up.

"He fits in perfect with the rotation," outfielder Sammy Sosa said.

Nobody expects Maddux to dominate the way he did in his 11 years with Atlanta. He lost 11 games last season and had a 3.96 ERA that was his worst since his rookie season.

Asked how different he feels from his first stint with the Cubs, Maddux arched his eyebrows in a quizzical expression reserved for big-picture questions.

He doesn't spend much time thinking about such things.

"I don't know," he finally said. "Do I feel older? No, not really. Each season I'm excited to get going."

He won't compare this team to any of his teams in Atlanta, which made the playoffs each season but won only that one World Series title.

"Especially this time of year, it's really easy to expect to win," Maddux said. "I don't think it's any secret that when I was in Atlanta, every opening day we were expected to win."

For the first time in years, the Cubs are expected to win, partly because of how they upgraded the roster in the offseason. Maddux joined a rotation that already included Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, who isn't expected to pitch until next month.

Manager Dusty Baker thinks Maddux will be a big influence on a young staff that has already developed into one of baseball's best.

"He's going to have a great impact on those guys - how he works, how he goes about his business, just his overall demeanor," Baker said.

His demeanor is the same - low key to a fault. He's quick to point out that the Cubs had a good thing going before they brought him home.

He's also self-effacing in the face of compliments from his new teammates. Baker noted that Maddux is often the first one to the ballpark, working on ways to get better.

"I mean, I'm the first to leave, too," Maddux deadpanned.

His new teammates have grown fond of his small-ego approach to the game. Baker recalled that he was recently talking to Wood and Prior about the Cy Youngs and Gold Gloves that Maddux has won, wondering where he found space to keep them all.

"Those guys said, 'Knowing him, they're probably somewhere in his garage in a box,'" Baker said.

The Cubs hope he has to find the box, dust it off and add a few more trophies before too long.