I have seen the future of the Chicago Cubs, and his name is Corey Patterson.
Like Jon Landau first writing about Bruce Springsteen some 25 years ago, I intend that statement to be only mildly ironic. Toward the end of August I went out to Kane County to see the Cougars play the Lugnuts in Lansing's one and only visit this season to Elfstrom Stadium. The Lugnuts are the Cubs' Midwest League affiliate, and I was full of skepticism about their two top prospects: Patterson, the center fielder, and Hee Seop Choi, the Korean Baby Huey of a first baseman. This was Class A baseball, after all, and while it might be "only" three steps removed from the majors, there is a chasm in between. Choi bore all the earmarks of a Class A prospect, with elements of grace peeking out from beneath a surface clumsiness in the field, and with a powerful left-handed batting stroke that proved largely inept against left-handed pitching. Patterson was something else again. He was as impressive as a newly 20-year-old Class A ballplayer can be, and he didn't even seem to be trying to impress. Everything he did was in the natural context of the game, and he did almost everything well--especially on offense.
The Lugnuts (they play in Lansing, Michigan, home of the Oldsmobile, thus the silly auto-assembly-line nickname) arrived in Geneva two weeks ago Monday, and every paper in town sent a sports columnist out to cover Patterson, the Cubs' top draft pick last year and the third player chosen overall. Unfortunately it rained and none of the writers got to see him play, though that didn't keep them from bringing back glowing reports about what a fine-looking ballplayer and young man he is. Rain threatened again the following night, though the teams got the game in, and even the night after that, as the Cougars and Lugnuts rushed through the two seven-inning games of a makeup doubleheader. Thursday the skies finally cleared. I drove under puffy clouds through the dappled sun and shade of the western suburbs, past the cornfields and the occasional horse paddock that break up the tract housing out there, and arrived early, just as Patterson and Choi were about to take batting practice. I sat in one of the front-row seats of the lovely little ball yard and sized them up.
Choi was taking grounders at first and he actually looked quite slick, full of little flicks and flourishes with the glove. Yet his statistics--16 errors in only 69 games, according to the sheet thoughtfully provided with the day's scorecard--told another story. During the game he'd perform a flashy backhand flip to the pitcher on a slow roller, and as fancy as that was it didn't work because the pitcher dropped the ball. (There's a reason big-league first basemen typically show the pitcher the ball before leading him in a toss to the bag; it's so the pitcher can concentrate on the ball as he feels for first with his spikes.) Choi is a big player, listed at 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds on the team roster (signed earlier this year as a free agent, he's just about the biggest Korean I've ever seen, and early reports are that he has made a remarkably smooth transition to America in part because he likes the meat-heavy American diet), and he has a big, sweeping swing. When he connected in batting practice the ball flew--one shot clanged off the aluminum bleachers in deep right-center field. During the game, however, he was nullified by the left-handed slants of Kane County pitchers Matt Ward and Geoff Goetz. He went 0 for 4 with a couple of strikeouts and a couple of infield groundouts, though one ball was hit hard and required a nice diving stab by the second baseman.
Patterson also is a left-handed hitter, but with a much more compact swing. He's comparatively short, listed at 5-foot-10, but solidly built. He appears to have broad but not imposing shoulders hidden under his jersey, which tapers to a whippet-thin waist. He has been compared in build to the Philadelphia Phillies' Ron Gant, but when hitting he's more reminiscent of the Saint Louis Cardinals' Ray Lankford in that he's almost unbelievably quick. He has a fairly traditional batting stance--erect, feet shoulders' width apart, hands held close to the body just above the waist--but he turns on the ball like a mousetrap springing shut.
Yet before the game there was nothing to establish either player as a better prospect than the other. Patterson entered play with 18 homers, 75 runs batted in, a .318 batting average, and an impressive 32 steals. Choi had 16 homers, 63 RBI, and a .324 average, and as a late signee had put up his power numbers in only 69 games, compared with Patterson's full-season 101. Sixteen homers in 69 games is impressive in any league. Both struck out the first time up--Patterson on a slider from Ward, Choi on a curve. The next time around, though, Patterson stamped as beautiful an impression in my mind as anything I've seen on the field in a long time.
Though the Cougars' Web site had reported that grandstand seats were sold-out--they would eventually post an attendance of 7,623--there were plenty of empty spots as the game progressed. The press box was hot and stuffy, so I slipped out to a third-row seat behind the Lansing dugout in time to see Patterson lead off the fourth inning. A mousetrap gives no hint that it's about to spring shut; likewise, Patterson's right knee flexed in and his swing released in the blink of an eye. He strode, met the ball out in front of the plate, and drove it out of the park, lining it to the base of the light pole in right-center between the bleachers and the refreshment deck. It was a beautiful swing--maybe not as beautiful as the swing of Ken Griffey Jr., but close--and I was still marveling as he rounded the bases and returned to the dugout with the Cubs fans behind me shouting "Core-ee! Core-ee!"
Most impressive about the homer was the thought it displayed. Having struck out on a slider the first time up, Patterson went to bat the second time expecting the pitcher to try to set up that pitch again by getting ahead of him with a fastball. So he jumped on it. His next at-bat, in the sixth, was even better. Where the Cubs fans had been sort of apathetic his first two times up, now they were cheering for him as he stepped to the plate. Ward started him this time with a slider; Patterson took it for a ball. Ward then threw a curve, and Patterson--who knew he wouldn't see another fastball from Ward, and who had just seen the slider--was all over it, smashing it to right field for a double. He died on second when Choi struck out, but he doubled again in the eighth, this time against the lefty reliever Goetz. Lansing starter Mike Wuertz had given up three runs to the Cougars in the first, but he settled down after that, and the Lugnuts tied the score on solo homers by Jeff Goldbach and Tydus Meadows in addition to Patterson's. They went in front in the seventh on a single, a wild pitch, and an RBI double by Ibrahim Navarro. Now in the eighth, with one out, Patterson was on second. He went to third on a passed ball. Then Goldbach hit a pop fly to short right.
The ball was in the air long enough to allow Patterson to look at his third-base coach and shrug. The coach pointed to the bag and told him to go. Patterson tagged up, waited for the Kane County right fielder, Brett Roneberg, to catch the ball, and was off like a sprinter at the gun. "He's got a good arm!" said a Cougar season-ticket holder sitting nearby. Patterson was flying down the line as Roneberg's throw came humming in. The ball bounced high and catcher Matt Treanor grabbed it and swiped at Patterson, a bang-bang play. It looked to me as if Treanor's glove hit Patterson's foot as it slid across the plate, but the umpire wasn't going to call him out on a swipe tag. Kane County manager Rick Renteria argued, and Roneberg stood in short right field holding his head between his bare hand and his gloved hand, but the Lugnuts had their insurance run.
Of course, Lansing being a Cubs farm team, it was fitting that it didn't matter. The Cougars rallied for three runs in the eighth, going ahead on a two-run triple by number-eight hitter David Callahan. Lugnuts reliever Elvis Polanco got ahead of him 0-2 on a curve, then threw another that Callahan hit down the right-field line. Polanco looked like he might beat his head against the pitching rubber. Kane County's long-limbed Nelson Lara came on in the ninth to retire the Lugnuts before Patterson could come to the plate again. The Cougars won 6-5.
I can't say I was disappointed. I like the Cougars and their functional little park, built right into a ground swell in front of a landfill. I like Roneberg, a 20-year-old Australian, and 21-year-old third baseman Jose Santos as prospects for the Florida Marlins. (Santos has a batting stance that appears to be modeled on that of the Cardinals' Fernando Tatis.) Though I missed seeing their best pitchers this season--Wes Anderson and David Noyce, both on the disabled list with tender arms when the Lugnuts came to town, but expected back for the playoffs--they have plenty of live arms. And their fans are great. At one point between innings, Cougars staffers went onto the field with large slingshots and lofted water balloons into the stands. The occasional fans behind the Lansing dugout were mildly outraged, but the regulars behind the Cougars dugout were prepared; as the staffers came off the field they were pelted by the water balloons the fans had brought themselves.
A dim yellow disk of a moon began to emerge from below the dark southeast horizon. I watched it rise and listened to the hum of fans all around me and realized it was as if Patterson's picture-perfect homer had clicked on something long neglected in my mind. It was a beautiful game and a beautiful night, and the night stayed with me as I drove home past cornfields with mist rising above them and glided down the Eisenhower Expressway under lights that seemed to stream by. Who cares who won or lost? The Cubs have another wonderful player on the way. I wouldn't expect to see him in the majors very soon. No less an expert than Cubs outfield instructor Jimmy Piersall says Patterson is a quick learner, but he still seems a little tentative in the field and he has a hitch in his throwing motion. That said, he looks like a can't-miss prospect. I can easily see him joining the Cubs next September, especially if they're suffering through another year like this one. I'd expect Choi to develop more gradually, but he should be along in a few years too. And so the way it's always been for Cubs fans appears to be the way it's going to be in the future as well. The Cubs may never win, but they'll always have a player or two to keep fans entertained, to renew hope, to keep us looking ahead to next year.