Fizzled phenom Patterson tries again

A hyped Cub at 21, outfielder seeks redemption as Oriole

February 28, 2006|By CHILDS WALKER | CHILDS WALKER,SUN REPORTER

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Corey Patterson was that kid.

He was the one who started in football as a high school freshman and promptly led the team in total yards and scoring. He was the one who, as a sophomore, was already considered the best among thousands of high school athletes playing baseball in the Atlanta area. He was the one who put up numbers out of a video game - .528 with 22 homers and 38 steals in 38 games - as a senior.

He hit the minors as the nation's third overall pick and remained special as ever. Prospect guides heralded him as the best young talent in the game.

By now, Patterson was supposed to be in his prime, living up to those comparisons to Lou Brock and Rickey Henderson.

Didn't work out that way.

The kid reached Chicago at age 21, and the gold began rubbing off. He was still swinging at every pitch, thinking his talent would guarantee solid contact. His manager, former big league slugger Don Baylor, expressed doubts about his potential. He was 23, and suddenly they were calling him the most overrated athlete in Chicago.

After seven years, the Cubs gave up and shipped him off for nickels on the dollar. And that's why Patterson finds himself in the odd position of seeking redemption at age 26. It's why he's sitting in the Orioles clubhouse this February afternoon, talking about the future with a serious countenance. He agrees with those who said he needed to leave Chicago and start over.

"I think so," the center fielder said. "No human being is that strong mentally. After a while, it's not healthy for you."

His last manager, Dusty Baker, said Patterson still has great promise.

"You got a tremendous talent there," Baker said at the Cubs' spring camp in Arizona. "Fresh start. New town. New league. That's going to be good for him."

Up close, you can see how those Henderson comparisons began. Patterson isn't tall or bulky, but his arms, legs and chest are cut into solid masses of muscle. He looks like an NFL tailback.

He has been one of the quieter players at camp, going through drills with his head down and a serious look on his face. He's polite when approached by reporters or young autograph seekers. But he hasn't volunteered a lot of chitchat or stray grins.

He said he's enjoying himself, however, and called the Orioles clubhouse the loosest he has been in.

Football or baseball?

As a kid, Patterson wanted to follow in his dad's footsteps and reach the NFL. (Don Patterson played for the Detroit Lions and New York Giants as a defensive back in 1979 and 1980.)

He played baseball more to be with his friends. He said he had scholarship offers for football based on his first three high school seasons. But he weighed his devotion to the two sports and decided he could have a longer, more lucrative career in baseball. So he gave up catching touchdown passes to chase fly balls full time.

"He's the best player I've ever had," said Mike Power, who coached Patterson at Harrison High in the Atlanta suburbs.

"He was a very quiet kid, very humble," Power said. "I think the attention he got almost embarrassed him. Mentally, he was just so far ahead of the other kids as far as dealing with failure. He never got too high or too low."

Not that Patterson had a lot of failure to deal with.

He moved from dominating in high school to dominating at Single-A Lansing, where he hit .320 with 72 extra-base hits and 33 steals.

Those looking closely for flaws might have seen that Patterson took only 25 walks and struck out 85 times in 112 games. But his power and speed were such that even prospect watchers obsessed with plate discipline were smitten.

"Occasionally, a player appears whose skills are so outstanding that lack of patience at the plate doesn't hurt him much," wrote John Sickels of Stats Inc. "Kirby Puckett was like that. Patterson is like that, too."

He faced his first real struggles during a horrid start to his second season at Double-A West Tennessee. He'd end up striking out 115 times in 118 games.

"It wasn't that anything was really harder," he said. "I just got out of my comfort zone and developed some bad habits without noticing them.

"At the same time, I had never really been through adversity. I had been the best player on my team at every level, so it was good to go through it. It makes you stronger."

Patterson played better down the stretch and earned his first call-up to Chicago. He started the next season in Triple-A Iowa but was promoted to the big club to stay in the second half of that 2001 season.

Tough break

He hadn't really dominated in the high minors, and in retrospect, some say, the Cubs may have pushed him too quickly.

"It's kind of like if I tell my kids to clean their rooms or they can't go out, and then a few minutes later, I say, `Let's go to the movies,'" said Jim Callis of Baseball America, one of the prospect trackers who ranked Patterson so highly. "Eventually they're going to say, `I don't have to work on anything, because I'm moving up anyway.'"

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