Saturday, May 11, 2002

Maples: "Mama's Boy"

This story was the biggest breakthrough for me as a writer. It was my final exam for a creative sports writing class. We could choose any then-current Carolina athlete and write a 2,500-word profile on that athlete. Tim Crothers, a former Sports Illustrated senior writer who graduated from Carolina in 1986, taught the class. I chose Chris Maples, who was drafted by the Detroit Tigers after graduation, for obvious reasons, one of which was his willingness to chat candidly with me for a few hours in the Boshamer Stadium dugout. This was the first story I am proud of and since then I knew I could be a great writer if I kept working hard and learning from other great writers.

Freshman Jeremy Cleveland had forgotten the significance of the day. It was April 1, 2001, and the UNC baseball team was preparing for a team lift before practice at Boshamer Stadium.

However, he was well aware that when Coach Mike Fox put a player’s equipment in a plastic bag in front of his locker it meant a player had gotten too far out of line. Because this was how another UNC teammate was dismissed earlier in the year, Cleveland was anxious as he approached his locker.

Sure enough all his belongings lay in front of his locker, his nameplate removed, with a note on the plastic bag that read, ‘See me. Coach Fox,’ written in big red letters. By then he feared Fox had discovered a minor infraction he committed off the diamond a few days earlier.

“I freaked out and I was asking everybody what’s going on,” Cleveland said. “Everybody was kind of snickering, trying to keep a straight face. I went to ask Coach and he just cracked up laughing at me. He said, ‘You need to go talk to your buddy Maples.’”

Junior Chris Maples had filled his teammates in on this April fools hoax earlier that morning.

Maples hasn’t played any jokes to that extent since, yet his shenanigans continue.

“He’s a big kidder, like practical jokes,” Bunny Maples, Chris’s mother, said. “And he can take jokes. He’s one that can dish it out and take it too. Coach Fox never knows what he is going to do. We (the family) don’t either.”

The number “one” doesn’t just refer to Maples’s practical joke ranking or uniform number. It also is where he stands on the UNC stat sheet, where he is tops in home runs (19), RBIs (58), ERA (1.10) and saves (4), while being the lone scholarship senior.

At a school that exalts two-sport athletes like Julius Peppers and Ronald Curry, Maples might be the most gifted of the bunch. Just ask his mother who watched in awe as two-year-old Chris tossed a baseball in the air to himself and hit it with two hands. Or talk to his high school coach, Dean Dease, who played him at six different positions in a seven-inning game. Chat with Fox, and he’ll boast of Maples’s natural ability to walk on his hands or do standing back flips.

You still don’t buy it?

His father, Eugene Maples, who introduced him to golf at age 13, said the UNC golf coach, John Inman, had tried to persuade Maples in the past to join the varsity team. Maybe its Maples’s 225-yard 6-iron shots that warrant Inman’s interest. Or perhaps his ability to consistently break 80 without consistent practice.

“You can’t give him any advice because his swing was perfect to start with, the first time he ever played,” Rick Overman, Chris’s uncle, said. “Oh, he’d hit it too. He hit it a mile.”

Maples’s attitude reflects his versatility as much as his God-given hand-eye coordination. “I just go along with what the coaches do,” Maples said. “We got one of the best pitching coaches in the nation, Roger Williams. So I just went along with him.” He started pitching this fall for the first time since high school, when he came in as a reliever. He also played some first base, but come spring, he started at second base and right field. Fox moved him permanently to third base the fifth game of the season, while utilizing his 94 mile-per-hour fastball as the team’s top closer.

And it’s not like the coaches haven’t seen Maples before. He is a four-year senior. “We really recruited him as a middle infielder – shortstop, second baseman,” Fox said. “But when you have that kind of athleticism, that kind of arm, it allows you to move all over the field and he’s basically done that. You can’t have enough of those players. I ought to have two or three like him.”

His value to the team can also be his personality. Making off-the-wall comments through a long and unstable seasonlike baseball has a positive effect on a team. “It’s stuff he says – whether it’s out of stupidity or he does it on purpose – it doesn’t matter with him,” center fielder Adam Greenberg said. “Even with serious talks with coach, he’ll crack jokes during meetings. And if anyone else does it, it’s what are you doing? But Chris, it’s expected.”

Cleveland agreed, “Whenever Coach Fox is having a rough day with us, he finds a way of making coach laugh and making us laugh at ourselves or him. He just makes everybody else feel a lot better.”

Last summer, while playing for the Durham Braves in the Coastal Plain League, Maples painted his spikes white with the paint used to draw foul lines. “One game I just got the idea that I’d paint my spikes white because Clemson has the white spikes and I think it’s pretty cool,” he said. “It kind of rubbed off and then I decided to spray paint the whole thing. It makes you look like you are faster, too, in white shoes.” In true Maples fashion, he gladly obliged to paint his spikes gold upon an ECU fan’s request a couple days later.

Layered beneath his antics exists compassion, which triggers his desire to be what he calls a “friendship-leader.” When asked how he feels about being the only scholarship senior on the team, he is quick to point out the dedication of walk-on senior Brendan Leonard. And despite his gaudy numbers on the mound and at the plate this year, Maples has remained as humble as his small-town upbringing. Maybe it’s a weekly Bible study meeting with 10 of his teammates that prevent his head from swelling.

Then again, it’s hard to maintain an ego living with a mother who grew up in the same town as you and was an all-state high school shortstop, which Bunny accomplished in rural Hillsborough, N.C. She also played on the U.S. National Softball team that finished second in the world championship.

From the age of 13, nothing could pull Bunny away from the ballpark. In 1979, 27 years later, she was six months pregnant with Chris, yet started at shortstop for a Hillsborough softball team. When he was born, she took Chris and his older brother Robbie to her church softball games, which Eugene also played in. Somehow she managed to watch the children while she played.“I tried to keep him into stuff if they wanted to play, but I didn’t make them play if they didn’t want to,” Bunny said.

Of course she never had to, Chris loved playing any sport with a ball. “If I enjoy it, I’ll pick it up quick,” he said. “It’s like reading; I never liked to read so I don’t read.”

While she didn’t force Chris to play a certain sport, she demanded discipline from her two sons. Her demeanor made her better suited for this job than her even-tempered husband, who worked as a supervisor for a Piedmont electrical co-op.

“My mom’s more like a man than she is a woman,” Chris said. “She would fight before most men would. You could call me a mama’s boy, but it wouldn’t be an insult. I’d come in there and stub my toe on the TV or something and I’d be crying. She’d come in and whoop my brother. I’d laugh at him, then she’d whip me.”

She felt the same way for school. “They’d probably say, ‘Mama, I’m sick, come get me’,” Bunny said. “I’d say, ‘Well, let me see if I can get off work. You just go back to class and if I can get off I’ll come get you.’ I wouldn’t even ask to get off. I’d just let them stay up there and if they were sick enough the nurse would call.” Apparently the nurse never called back because Chris ended up having perfect attendance from kindergarten through high school graduation. Always an honor-roll student, he learned to cope with opening his books. At UNC, he’s made the Dean’s list the past three semesters and won the team scholar-athlete award.

While remaining remarkably healthy, his Cal Ripken-like upbringing has carried over to the baseball diamond. Following the Seton Hall series this year, he sprained his ankle. “I was out for a day or two of practice, and then started hobbling around and said, ‘The heck with it. I can’t stand to sit here and watch.’” Unable to sprint, he played in the next series with a heavily taped ankle.

During middle school Chris gained weight, prompting his dad to nickname him ‘Chunker,’ which he still calls him from time to time. By high school that name no longer suited Chris. He not only lost the extra weight, but his nutty personality replaced his shyness. “I was the big goof-off in high school, like a whole lot worse than college because it’s high school. And I used to run laps all the time for doing stupid stuff.”

While starring on the Orange County High School baseball team in Hillsborough, Chris also played quarterback for the football team and guard for the basketball team. Unable to grip the ball well with his small hands, his athleticism only took him so far in the latter two sports. He decided to concentrate strictly on baseball his senior year.

Although batting about .400 during his three years as a starter, Chris was not recruited heavily until the end of his senior season. Fox took over the UNC coaching job on July 1, 1998 and saw Maples play an American Legion game a few days later. A single relay throw from Maples’s right cannon made him Fox’s first recruit as skipper. “I’ve been a big Carolina fan ever since I was old enough to walk,” Maples said. “So it’s like a dream to play here.”

The country boy with a contagious smile and a rocket arm would exceed everyone’s expectations, but not right away.

During his first season, 1999, Fox used him as a backup infielder in late game situations for defense. Next season Chris played in almost every game, starting nearly half. “He came off the bench as a sophomore against Florida State when the game was in doubt and actually won the game with a two-out hit,” Fox said. “And that showed us that he could come off the bench. He really had no fear.”

As a junior, Maples won his third team lifting award, given to the hardest worker during fall weight training. The extra effort paid off, as he started 46 games at third and seven at second, while tying for a team best seven homers.

Playing three summers for the Braves helped Maples elevate his skills. However, the weight room may have had the greatest impact. This season he benches 305; squats 370; power cleans 280; and can do 34 consecutive pull-ups. Not bad for someone 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds. “They call me ‘country strong’ just because I’m a little guy,” Maples said. “They don’t understand where it comes from...”

Even with his added strength and bigger bat, Maples’s most noticeable improvement this season may be patience at the plate. Always an aggressive hitter, he has walked more than twice as much as he did last season. He has worked on waiting longer for the ball and then using his quick hands to generate power. “One of my goals this year was to hit a homerun to the opposite field,” Maples said. He more than achieved that, smacking five homers to right field while increasing his batting average from .288 to .341.

Maples’s power helped turn a dismal 6-8 Tar Heel squad into a nationally ranked team, which was no more evident than on March 22 – the first of a three-game home series against then No. 1-ranked Florida State. Down 7-2 in the seventh inning, Maples led off with a solo shot to left, and punctuated a nine-run inning with a grand slam to right center. This propelled UNC to a series sweep and what would be a 13-game winning streak.

A day after the sweep, Maples was named ACC Player of the Week, compiling four homers and 14 RBIs with a .500 batting average in five games. “It looked like we were down for the count and he steps up,” Greenberg said. “And when the bases were loaded he fouls off a few pitches and hit a grand slam. It was awesome. That inning, I said, turned around our year and that was because of Chris Maples.”

While his bat turned the season around, it is his arm that may change the view of Major League scouts, who passed on Maples in last year’s draft. He has an arm that can throw a baseball from the right field bullpen in Boshamer to the clock resting atop the 42-foot high scoreboard in left field – about a 350-foot distance between the two. The same arm that threw a bullet from right field to first base last summer, beating the batter by a full stride. Then watch his fluid pitching motion and stunning confidence while factoring in the watered-down pitching Major League expansion teams generate, and his dream to play in the big show is even more likely to be realized.

But somehow Maples has a way of keeping things in perspective. He chose to major in exercise and sports science as a freshman because of his desire to coach baseball. Besides skydiving and eventually settling down with a wife and kids, he has other future plans. “I want to go into some kind of sales – like medical sales or pharmaceutical sales. And maybe down the road if I find out that I want to be a coach, there’s still time for that.”

Right now, he’s just happy being a college student – coming home and playing with his energetic 1-year-old Jack Russell terrier, P.J., or chatting with his family on the field after a home game.

Carolina batboy R.J. Overman is Chris Maples's first cousin.

“We’re proud of that boy,” Bunny said. “And he’s like a family person too. He likes being around older people. He enjoys coming over and hanging around, where a lot of kids wouldn’t come around. He can get along with anybody.”

While sitting forward in the Tar Heel dugout at Boshamer, Chris articulates the closeness of his family. His face exudes an aura of genuineness and sincerity that can only be expressed from the depth of his heart. The type of recollection that can be made from nearly losing brother Robbie, which happened to Chris as a 10th-grader.

“My brother was in a real bad accident,” Maples said. “He was in ICU for like a month with head trauma. He could have very easily died, because I think he ended up dying in their arms twice. He stopped breathing, heart stopped beating. That brought my family so close together.”

When asked how Robbie is now, Maples sits up, his face hardly unchanged. “Oh he’s fine now. Yeah, he’s back to retard.”

This story first appeared at in May 2002. A month later Maples was selected by the Detroit Tigers in the sixth round of the major league baseball amateur draft.