Corey Patterson doesn’t waste a lot of time dwelling on disappointment.
Patterson, who was once one of the hottest names among baseball prospects a dozen years ago, and a Major League regular as recently as two years ago, is playing in front of crowds about a tenth of the size to which he’s accustomed, eating fast-food meals as opposed to catered food, and traveling on buses instead of charter planes.
But when Patterson talks about his present state as a member of the AAA Nashville Sounds, there’s no hint of bitterness in his eyes or his voice, or even a trace of regret.
“You have to enjoy still playing, bottom line,” Patterson said on Friday. “That’s the main thing. You can’t really press yourself in wanting to get back to the Major Leagues, even though that’s my goal, just like with everyone else’s goal in here.”
This certainly wasn’t where the 32-year-old was supposed to be at this stage of his career. Way back in 1998, Patterson starred at Kennesaw, Georgia’s Harrison High, where he bashed 22 home runs and hit .528 as a senior in just 38 games. Patterson was named the co-national high school player of the year for those efforts, and had committed to play at nearby Georgia Tech.
That summer, the Cubs, loving his rare combination of elite power and speed, made him a first-round pick in the 1998 Major League Baseball draft. So, Patterson bypassed college when the Cubs offered a $3.7 million signing bonus.
“I was lucky,” Patterson recalls. “I was in a good situation. I was the third pick overall in my draft year so I didn’t need to go to school and do better.”
Two years later at age 20, Baseball America named him the third-best prospect in baseball. The next year, he moved one spot up the list. By age 22, he was no longer a prospect – he was in the majors for good.
At 24, he smacked 24 home runs and stole 32 bases for the Cubs in ’04, but after a brief demotion the next year, he was traded to the Orioles, where he played two full seasons.
The next year, 2008, began what’s become a yo-yo career between the majors and minors. He spent the next three years in the Reds, Nationals and Brewers organizations, went back to Baltimore for 2010, then to Toronto and St. Louis, then to Milwaukee again this season.
But 2012 has been tougher than those other years. Though the season’s not over, it’s the first time that Patterson has yet to see time in the big leagues since his debut year.
That would be a tough road for anyone who’s been where Patterson’s been. Instead of naval-gazing, though, Patterson’s manager, Mike Guerrero, says his outfielder instead spends a lot of time trying to help his younger teammates. Guerrero thinks that Patterson might have a future as a coach, and Patterson admits he’s thought about doing that at the high school level one day.
“When the other kids who don’t have the experience that he has, when they make a mistake, he’s able to communicate with them, talk them through the situation, coach them this way or that way,” Guerrero says. “It’s easier sometimes for players to communicate with another player… especially a guy with the experience that Corey has. It’s a blessing to everyone to have him around.”
Patterson believes his most important contributions to his teammates revolve around learning from the mistakes he made earlier in his career. The 5-foot-10, 180-pounder says that whereas he thought himself into slumps earlier in his career, experience has taught him to keep things simple and focus on the fundamentals.
“For me, as long as you’re solid in your approach and what you’re working on every day, anything else in the game is irrelevant whether you do good or bad, because you know that approach is going to get you back to where you need to get back to,” he says. “It’s when you’re not sure what you’re working on prior to the game, or you’re always constantly changing things, that’s where it’s going to get to you mentally and is going to show in the field.”
In the meantime, Patterson admits that life as a minor leaguer isn’t all sunshine and roses – but he’s at a point in his life where he can deal with it with a smile on his face.
“I like playing the game, but it’s the extra stuff – the bus rides, the early wake-up calls, not the best hotels, looking out your hotel window and only having a Subway to eat, or who knows, a McDonald’s, that’s probably the toughest thing for me. … As far as playing the game, it’s a piece of cake, but I have my days where – especially on travel day – I joke with the guys that I’m probably not the happiest person on the team, getting out of bed at 4:30!” he laughs.
Patterson’s stat line with Nashville – in 252 at-bats for the Sounds, he’s hitting .274 with seven homers, 28 RBIs and a .448 slugging percentage – could keep him on Milwaukee’s radar. And should he get back to the world of better beds, fancy food, and first-class flying, he thinks he can still contribute there.
“I think I still play pretty good defense, can steal a key base, get a timely hit here and there, an occasional homer. A lot of guys are one-dimensional, which is fine, but I think I can do a little bit of everything. If I don’t get a hit that day, I can take some away late in the game, steal a key base, play some defense,” he says.