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Fizzled phenom Patterson tries again

FootballBaseballChicago CubsHigh SchoolsBaltimore Orioles

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 breakHe 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.'"

Patterson struggled in his first full season, getting on base at a .284 clip and striking out 142 times. But come 2003, it seemed his talent might override his free swinging. He was hitting .298 with 13 homers and 16 steals through 83 games and was a candidate to fill the final, fan-selected spot on the All-Star team. Then, he took a misstep on first base as he was beating out an infield hit. He tore his meniscus and anterior cruciate ligament, and the season in which he was living up to his billing was over.

He refused to say that was the moment that spoiled his stay in Chicago. "Who knows?" he said. "It happened. It was a freak play."

But the injury stalled his momentum. He'd recover to have a decent 2004 (24 homers and 32 steals), but his problems with plate discipline weren't getting any better.

He went 3-for-5 with two RBIs on Opening Day last year but his season tanked from there. He was hitting .232 when the Cubs sent him to Triple-A for the first time since 2001. Patterson became wrapped in insecurities about his performance. "I got to the point last year where I was trying to change something every day," he said.

He felt he couldn't win with fans and writers.

"The only problem I had was I got to the point where, yeah, I was scuffling and the fans would boo me, and that was fine," he said. "But then, when I did things well, they overlook them. And to me, that was personal."

Patterson said he didn't blame Baker or his teammates. "What happened over there, they were great," he said. "It wasn't anybody's fault over there. I was the one playing. I take responsibility."

In the offseason, the Cubs acquired Juan Pierre to play center, and it became apparent they wanted Patterson out of town. The Orioles took advantage and acquired the former phenom for lowly regarded prospects Nate Spears and Carlos Perez.

But the Cubs didn't send him off without regrets.

"You hate to trade him and give up on him. ... You hate to lose him," Baker said. "He has speed, power and an outstanding throwing arm. It's just a matter of him putting it together."

Realigning swingIf Patterson blossoms this year, some credit may go to an old hand from Chicago. His brother, Eric, remains in the Cubs' farm system and referred Patterson to minor league instructor Von Joshua.

The two worked together in the fall. Joshua said Patterson was lifting his leg and dropping his hands, allowing pitches to get on him before he could uncoil. Joshua moved Patterson's hands and changed his leg action from a kick to a cocking of the knee. The instructor was impressed with the results.

"He is a super talent," Joshua said. "A fresh start may be just what he needs. They [the Cubs] know him better than I do, but I told them in a meeting, 'A year or two from now, this kid is going to be what everybody thought he was going to be.' He could be a superstar in a couple of years."

Patterson said he and Joshua saw the same flaws in his approach. "Basically, last year, I was off balance quite a bit," he said. "It feels 10 times better than it did last year."

Patterson said he's not particularly planning to lay off more pitches: "You just have to trust yourself, trust your vision and when you get the pitch in your zone, you take advantage of it. But any hitter will tell you that."

Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo said Patterson isn't guaranteed a starting spot over Luis Matos but said he could see the newcomer batting either second or lower in the order.

"I talked to Corey earlier this spring, and I told him to be himself," Perlozzo said. "We just want him to fit into our program, move the ball around, use his speed. But we don't want to take his power away from him. If he can pop one out every once in awhile, God bless him."

Patterson said Perlozzo and the Orioles coaches haven't given him much specific advice.

"I think basically what they're looking for from me," he said, "is consistency."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Peter Schmuck contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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