By Jim Henneman
It never figured to happen overnight, although that's just what the timetable seems to suggest.
Corey Patterson made his major league debut in 2000, less than a month after his 21st birthday and with only two low-level minor league seasons to make up a resume that included 42 home runs and 60 stolen bases. Those were the numbers that intrigued.
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Yet, for all intents and purposes, his minor league education was over. He played 89 games for Triple-A Iowa the next year, then rejoined the struggling Cubs. What followed were a little over three promising, but less than spectacular years that culminated with a line of 24 home runs, 72 RBIs and 32 stolen bases in a 2004 season that was supposed to propel Patterson to the next level.
What happened instead is probably one of those baseball mysteries that will never be solved. Amid the degree of chaos that has surrounded the Cubs the last few years, Patterson hit an alarming .215 in 128 games sandwiched around another month in Iowa.
Eventually, it all came back to strikeouts and walks. Patterson had way too many of the former and not nearly enough of the latter. On average he struck out once every 3.8 at-bats a year ago, a ratio that mirrored his career numbers.
How could he survive with a .254 career on-base percentage? He had spent most of his time in the leadoff spot with the Cubs, and getting on base once every four plate appearances wasn't going to cut it.
At the age of 26, with less than three years in the minor leagues and more than four in the major leagues, Patterson was essentially washed up in Chicago. In January he was traded to the Orioles for infielder Nate Spears and left-handed pitcher Carlos Perez. The two minor leaguers haven't advanced beyond that level with the Cubs.
Doug Melvin, who once ran the Orioles' minor league system and is now the general manager of the Milwaukee Brewers, knew about Patterson as a highly-regarded amateur prospect and followed his career. Melvin said he sees parallels between Patterson and other players.
"Corey came out as a five-tool player and there have always been high expectations of him," said Melvin. "With those expectations comes the tendency to rush a player, similar to what we did in Baltimore with Jeffrey Hammonds.
"He's got speed and power and sometimes you get caught in between. Is he a home run guy or stolen base guy? I don't think there was ever any doubt about his ability, but plate discipline was always an issue with him. And the way people look at the strikeout/walk ratio now, that also worked against him. I'm not sure what happened in Chicago, but the word that filters back now is that he's relaxing and enjoying the game more."
What did happen in Chicago is the Cubs decided that whatever the experiment might have been, it wasn't going to work there. And for most of spring training there were few signs it was going to work in Baltimore. Manager Sam Perlozzo constantly insisted he foresaw Patterson having a role with the Orioles. But, for the most part, those comments were dismissed as spring training propaganda.
Gradually, though, the person who would spend the most time with Patterson, hitting coach Terry Crowley, could see some progress.
"There were some flashes in spring training," said Crowley. "You had the feeling that if he could get it together, he'd be okay at the plate. The thing is, he's so good defensively, and he's so fast, that it would give a little time (to get it going) offensively."
The process, however, was and is a slow one. Crowley and Patterson have a better idea what to expect from each other, but the transformation is still a work in progress.
Immediately after the Orioles obtained Patterson, Crowley tried to avoid any kind of scouting reports that might have been available. "I always discount anything I might hear about a player," he said. "I've been doing this long enough now and I'd rather form my own opinions."
After going through the "getting to know you" period, Crowley went about making some adjustments with Patterson. "Once we got to know each other, I told him how I felt about his swing, the approach we wanted to take and to make sure he knew we were in this for the long haul," said the veteran coach.
"We weren't just going to tinker and forget about it," he said. "We got him some drills and he seemed to key in. In general, what we worked on was shortening his swing a little, and just kept working at it. But let me make it clear, he's the one in the batter's box, he's the one hitting the line drives and getting the hits."
Somewhere along the line, he's not sure exactly when or where, Crowley figured something special might be taking place. "I realized that a rare, young, talented player had been dropped on my doorstep," he said. "He had the ability to cover the outfield as good as anybody I'd ever seen. He could hit to all fields, and had blinding speed.
"And the best thing of all was the more I was around him, the more I got to know him, the more I liked him as a person," said Crowley. "He's as honest as they come, he's got a businesslike approach, and he doesn't make excuses. You put all those things together and you've got a pretty good chance for success."
There is one part of Patterson's offensive game that doesn't involve Crowley, except in a supportive way. Prior to last weekend, Patterson had already registered 12 bunt hits. Teammate Melvin Mora had only seven and nobody else in the American League had more than four. Conservatively those dozen hits are worth 30-40 points on his batting average and serve as a good deterrent to prolonged slumps.
"Sam was a good bunter and he's worked on it with Corey," said Crowley. "The only thing I do with his bunting is encourage it. This is a guy who is so fast he can miss-hit a ball and get on, and once he gets on he's got a chance to get to third base. Plus, he's got unbelievable power, which we've seen and I think we'll see even more."
The adjustments Patterson has made have enabled him to jump his on-base percentage with the Orioles to a respectable .331. His strikeout ratio is probably still a little higher than the purists would like, one for every 6.0 at-bats -- but it's one the Orioles can live with, especially with the newly established every day centerfielder on pace to record 60 stolen bases.
At this stage of the proceedings, Patterson is more of a work in progress than a finished product. He's still in the developing stage, only approaching his 27th birthday. And how far along is he?
"Still growing, but far enough along to know that he's going to be a part of our future," said Crowley. "And that's been the idea all along, to help a young, raw talent be a part of this club's future."
Is he going to be a power hitter? A base stealer? A Gold Glove outfielder?
"He's going to be Corey Patterson," said Crowley, content to wait and see what the polished player is capable of producing.
Issue 1.10: June 29, 2006