Patterson gave Pie time to bake

Corey Patterson returns for some postgraduate work in hitting school this week. Conventional wisdom says his stay with the Cubs' Triple-A team in Iowa will be relatively brief, but it comes with no guarantees.

The Cubs have given Patterson repeated chances to blossom into a big-league star over six seasons, including continuous duty in center field since 2002. Except for the first half of 2003, a stretch that ended when he tripped over first base and tore up his knee, he has been a disappointment.

Don't be surprised if the Cubs include him in a deal before the July 31 deadline, moving him to acquire either an outfielder or a relief pitcher. The shock will come if Patterson returns to land a long-term contract and reestablish himself as a big part of the Cubs' future.

At 25, Patterson is a distant gleam in the eyes of general manager Jim Hendry and others in the front office. The new baggage-free hope for the future is 20-year-old center fielder Felix Pie, who might already be with the Cubs had he not sprained his ankle three weeks ago.

Pie helped the West Tenn Diamond Jaxx to a first-half title in the Double-A Southern League, batting .304 with 11 homers, 25 RBI and 13 stolen bases. He was sidelined when teammates Matt Murton and Adam Greenberg were promoted to Chicago to replace Patterson and left fielder Jason Dubois in a shakeup just before the All-Star break.

Although Jerry Hairston Jr. has taken over in center for Patterson, Pie is the long-term answer there. He figures to get a long look in September, if the Cubs are out of the playoff picture, and his leadoff skills could put him there with the Cubs trying to stay afloat.

"He's an exciting player, a really exciting player," West Tenn manager Bobby Dickerson said. "He loves to win. That's the biggest thing I've seen. He really enjoys winning ball games, and he always wins. Every team he's been on has made the playoffs, and three won championships."

Dickerson called Pie an "unselfish, talented player." Patterson is gifted with all the talent in the world but has never accepted being one of the guys.

When Patterson struggled in the leadoff spot -- his on-base percentage was .270 when he was demoted -- he talked about wanting to be a No. 3 hitter. How about just being happy to be written anywhere onto a lineup card in the major leagues? Patterson made big catches and got some big hits, but day after day, week after week came up empty, making it difficult for Dusty Baker to keep going to him.

Patterson could never quite fulfill the hype that followed his being selected with the third pick overall in the 1998 draft, then tearing up the Midwest League in his first season as a pro. The beauty of his tenure could turn out to be that he allowed multitalented Pie to develop quietly in the Cubs' farm system.

Dickerson says Pie is a team leader.

"Everybody who plays the game wants to win, but he thrives on it," Dickerson said. "A lot of players go 0-for-4, their team wins and there's not really any jubilation. He's the type of guy that he goes 0-for-4, the team wins and he's happy. I remember one time this year we had won six in a row. He's walking off the field going, 'My team! My team! My team is great!' He just enjoys being part of something special, and it [becomes contagious] around him."

Hendry has compared Pie to Kenny Lofton, saying he sees him as a leadoff man who will hit 10-20 home runs a season. Dickerson says Pie has enough power to be a 30-homer hitter but swings for homers only when the situation dictates.

Dickerson cited one game-winning home run when Pie called his shot in the dugout.

"He hit a homer in the 12th inning against Mobile to win a game 1-0," Dickerson said. "It was one of those long games where nobody could make anything happen. He was leading off the 12th and asked me what I wanted. I said, 'Get on base and score a run.' He said, 'How about a home run?' I said, 'No, just get on base and score a run.' He went up there to hit a home run, and he did it. It was a bomb, traveled more than 400 feet to right field. As soon as it left, it was 'game over.' Very impressive."

The West Tenn manager also gushes about Pie's fielding in center field.

"We were playing Tennessee, which is the Diamondbacks organization," Dickerson said. "I used to be with Arizona. They had some rovers there and some coaches I know. He took away four potential doubles that night, going way over to the gaps and back to the wall. It was an amazing game.

"The next day, those guys were asking me how he could get to those balls. Well, there was a fifth one in the game he had a shot to get, went way over to right field and almost got, and when he came back to the dugout he was really, genuinely mad that he didn't get it. Most guys would think they gave it a good try, what the heck? But he was mad. He really takes pride in himself and in his defense, and that's a good thing."

It won't be long until Cubs fans can see for themselves.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.