STARKVILLE — With his image plastered on the side of Dudy Noble Field, Mississippi State University fans continue to wonder when the next Paul Maholm will take the mound in Starkville.
With that question still unanswered, Maholm returned to Starkville on Saturday for MSU’s First Pitch banquet, which signifies the start of the 2012 campaign.
Maholm, a two-time All-American and the Bulldogs’ last first-round draft pick, spoke to the 2012 MSU squad, including a number of talented pitchers, about the qualities that helped him succeed. Fourth-year MSU coach John Cohen hopes to find the next front-line Friday night starter in the Southeastern Conference.
“Along the way, I made sure to never say I didn’t belong on this team or in this league as a pitcher,” Maholm said. “I learned every step of the way. My main thing when I spoke to them today was somebody wants my job as a professional now, but I learned that mentality at Mississippi State right here playing college baseball.”
Saturday night culminated an unusual offseason for Maholm. After winning 53 games and throwing 1,143 innings for a Pittsburgh Pirates organization that drafted him eighth overall in 2003, the left-hander signed a one-year, $4.25 million deal with the Chicago Cubs. The deal includes a club option for $6.5 million, with a buyout of $500,000.
Instead of offering Maholm a contract to stay in Pittsburgh, the club paid him $750,000 to allow him to sign elsewhere.
The free agent process was a new experience for the 29-year-old.
“It was a difficult decision because my main thing was I wanted to win in Pittsburgh,” Maholm said. “I was never given the opportunity to come back to Pittsburgh, so that never became a long-term option.”
Instead of signing a long-term deal that would’ve provided him, his wife, and his four-year-old son security, Maholm signed a short-term contract to play for a team with a passionate fan base. He said he will test the free-agent market next year or in two years when he still hopes to be in the prime of his career.
“This is a city my family can enjoy living in, and it’s a situation where I think we can win,” Maholm said. “For the first time in my career I went on the (disabled list) with my shoulder injury, so every team thought I was hurt. I knew I wasn’t hurt, and I wasn’t going to push the envelope with a longer deal.”
Although Maholm was 6-14 in 2011, he posted a 3.66 ERA, the lowest of his career for a full season. These numbers were the product of having one of the lowest run supports in his starts in the National League.
“It’s not a guarantee that just because I’m not in Pittsburgh that I’ll get twice as much run support, but for me it’s about taking the ball every fifth day and expect to win,” Maholm said. “I can’t control the outcome every time, and it’s a humbling game.”
Maholm is a sinkerball pitcher who has allowed less than one home run per nine innings in his career. That success gives him confidence he’ll be able to pitch in the tricky winds of Wrigley Field in Chicago, a ballpark that can be friendly to hitters depending on weather conditions.
“Maholm is a groundball pitcher and (newly acquired pitcher Chris)
Volstad is a ground ball pitcher, so that’s important,” Chicago General
Manager Jed Hoyer said Jan. 11 when Maholm signed. “It’s important to have a mixture on your staff. You don’t want a staff of all groundball guys or all flyball guys. You want to have pretty good diversity.”
Maholm, who signed autographs, took pictures with fans, and donated signed memorabilia Saturday night in the Palmeiro Center, will go to the Cubs’ spring training facility in Mesa, Ariz., this week to meet his new teammates and to get used to the surroundings.
“I’m looking forward just getting to Chicago, so now (with the day games) I get to get up in the morning and take him to school and then go to the field and be home at night,” Maholm said. “What spring training does is mean my wife and I are essentially done boxing stuff up and shipping it off. That’s not fun at all.”
Cohen enjoyed bringing Maholm back to speak to his team, especially a group of pitchers he feels has the potential to be the best since he took the job in Starkville.
“I’ve always said it’s so nice to have people in your program like Paul Maholm not only want to come back, but also to give our current guys a script to follow and be like,” Cohen said. “They need to know a guy in the big leagues had the same struggles and success they are going to have in this league and at this place.”