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After attitude, technique adjustments, Pie a hit with Orioles

For several minutes, Luke Scott let Felix Pie have it.

He chastised his work ethic, assailed his character, questioned his discipline and labeled him a bad teammate. And before he was done berating Pie, Scott asked one final question.

"I said to him: 'Do you really even want to be here? Because if you don't, then leave and stop taking somebody else's spot who is willing to work hard,' " Scott recalled. "I told him, 'There are people here that really want to see you succeed, but you have to work, you have to make the effort.'

"The whole time, his head was down. Finally, he just said, 'OK, I'll work.' "

The one-sided conversation, which Scott called a "reality check," took place early last season in the indoor batting cages at Camden Yards. At the time, Pie's ineffectiveness — he was hitting under .200 and regularly committing defensive and base-running blunders — had already cost him the starting left fielder's job, and his sulking and ever present scowl had alienated him from a good portion of the Orioles' clubhouse.

Well over a year later, several Orioles point to that unpleasant talk with Scott, along with the countless hours Pie has spent working with hitting coach Terry Crowley, as the impetus behind the outfielder's improvement as a player, and growth as a person.

Even with a recent slump, Pie, 25, is batting .274 with five homers and 20 RBIs in 63 games, and he has been a bright spot in a difficult season for many of the organization's young players.

"He's changed a lot, but when he first got here, you could just tell he had an attitude and a little chip on his shoulder and whatever the hell else was wrong with him," center fielder Adam Jones said. "Luke had to really challenge him, call him out and embarrass him for him to really come into his own. And Luke did it. He and Luke have a bond that nobody else can have in this clubhouse. They go together. It's good that Pie was mentally strong enough to take it for what it was, and it's good on Luke for taking that initiative and taking on that responsibility. That's enabled Pie to be the guy you see."

The guy the Orioles and manager Buck Showalter have seen is the one whom the Chicago Cubs expected to see before they finally ran out of patience with their ballyhooed prospect and sent him to Baltimore in January 2009 for pitchers Garrett Olson and Henry Williamson.

Pie got out to an awful start with his new team, but since last June, he has batted .297 and wrestled back the starting job in left field from Nolan Reimold.

"He got inserted into the lineup last year on Opening Day, but I didn't feel like he was ready for it, and a good number of at-bats later kind of proved that I was right," Crowley said. "But we worked on the things that he had to work on, and now he's become a real dangerous hitter in the American League East. That's very satisfying. He's worked hard."

Pie said he knew he could succeed in the big leagues, but he just needed a team willing to give him an extended opportunity to show it and a hitting coach willing to work with him to get rid of his bad habits.

"The opportunity that Baltimore has given me is a chance to play every day," Pie said. "It's given me my confidence back. No matter who is pitching, they put me in the lineup. I'm happy. I know if I go 0-for-4 today, the next day I'm going to play. I know what I have to do, and I know what the challenge is. This year and last year have really meant a lot. I knew I could compete at this level, but I'm learning more and I know what I have to do to be good.

"Terry Crowley, this guy has meant so much to me. The Felix Pie that everybody sees right now, that is because this guy made that person. Every day, he makes my mind strong. He never left me alone. He talked every day with me, worked with me, taught me about how to play baseball. Now, you know what kind of player I am."

The transformation of Pie as a player has been an obvious one, especially to fans, who were calling for the Orioles to get rid of the multi-tooled but mistake-prone outfielder for much of the first half of the 2009 season. He has since become a Camden Yards favorite and was even the subject of a T-shirt giveaway last month.

The transformation of Pie as a person is visible mostly in the Orioles clubhouse, when the player who walked around much of last year with a dour — and, at times, angry — expression on his face is laughing, joking and even dancing. Pie has a rap album coming out this month called "18 Cents," a reference to his uniform number. He recently gave fans a sneak peak during a scoreboard segment filmed with pitcher Jeremy Guthrie that included the pair engaging in salsa dancing.

It's an amazing contrast to the player who reported to spring training late in 2009 because of Visa issues in his native Dominican Republic and then barely talked to any of his teammates or even cracked a smile.

"The first impression obviously speaks volumes, but it's good that he has been able to relax," said Jones, who frequently exchanges barbs with Pie in the outfield during games. "I saw him in the bigs in Chicago, and he looked so uncomfortable, so tense. Here, he's having so much more fun. He belongs here and deserves to be in the big leagues, and I think he's [coming] to know that rather than having everybody kiss his [butt] and tell him that. It's given him the freedom to be himself rather than someone he's not."

Shortstop Cesar Izturis, one of Pie's closest friends on the club, said: "He's a great guy, an honest guy. He's so much different than the way he looks on the outside with his body language and stuff. You just have to take the time to get to know him."

Scott, who speaks fluent Spanish, did that last year, forming a friendship with the outfielder. Scott said he felt a responsibility to set his teammate straight, saying he would have hoped an older teammate would have done the same for him earlier in his career.

"He was just this big ball of talent, and there was no character, no discipline, no hard work, no dedication. There was laziness and an attitude that somebody owes him something," Scott said. "What was going through my mind was this guy has this golden opportunity that people would kill for and he was [wasting it]. I just gave it to him real.

"It was his decision, and you know what, for me, that's just awesome. To Felix's credit, he's made that effort, he's put in the hard work. You see him every day, he's in the cage, he's working on his swing, he's doing the drills that he's supposed to do. He's trying to make himself a better ballplayer."

Pie called the time after his benching last year the toughest of his professional career and credits Scott, among others, for helping him get through it.

Meanwhile, the Pie and Scott friendship continues to be a source of great amusement for the rest of their teammates. On a nearly daily basis in the clubhouse, Pie and Scott engage in a conversation, their Spanish getting louder and louder with each passing second. Though the conversations occasionally appear to get heated, both say that they are just in good fun.

"Every day when I come to the ballpark, I see him and he makes me laugh. I could be mad at something, but when I see him, I forget it," Pie said. "He talks to me every day. That's my friend."

Pie has also taken to watching pre-game video with Scott on that night's opposing pitcher. Scott gives him advice on what to expect and often watches Pie's at-bats from the top step of the dugout. If either of them hit a home run, they also have a choreographed handshake to celebrate it.

"I think it's a great dynamic," Showalter said. "I think Luke has been great for Felix, but I'll tell you what, and [Scott] may not admit it, but Felix has been great for him, too. I like when guys want to make somebody's path a little bit easier. If you got a Baltimore Orioles uniform on, you should make his path a little easier to travel."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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