One of my best baseball memories was in 1999, when I was 14 years old. I was living in Battle Creek, MI, and my brother, my cousin, and I attended a Class A minor league doubleheader between the local team, the Michigan Battle Cats, and the Lansing Lugnuts, an affiliate of the Chicago Cubs. As a Cubs fan, I badly wanted to see Corey Patterson, one of the most highly-touted prospects in all the minor leagues. Scouts everywhere were expecting him to one day become a superstar who would roam the outfield at Wrigley Field for many years.
Jeff Goldbach was another prospect who never made it to the majors, but on this night he was a star, belting two home runs. We were sitting in the left field seats, and my cousin caught his first home run. His second homer went into a small grassy area over the outfield wall behind our seats. It was semi-dark at this point, and we joined several other kids who were trying to find the ball. When my cousin emerged with that second home run ball, we were ecstatic.
In between games, we went over to the visiting dugout and got our baseballs signed by Goldbach, Patterson, and others. They all were very nice and talked to us for a couple of minutes. When we left the stadium that night, I had a memory that I would remember forever. I couldn’t wait for the day when I could tell everyone I know about how I met the great Corey Patterson before he made it big.
Patterson broke into the majors in 2002 and showed some promise. Then in 2003, when it looked like his career was about to take off, a freak injury on a play at first base sidelined him for the rest of the year. He came back and had a decent 2004 before starting to fade. He bounced around to several different teams and had a respectable major league career, collecting over 1,000 hits, but he never became a superstar. Today, Patterson is just another journeyman outfielder; when I tell people I once met him, few are impressed.
I had flashbacks to that day from 16 years ago when I learned that the Cubs have called up super-prospect Kris Bryant. I was at spring training this year and stood in a line of fans to have him sign my baseball three different times, but each time he had to leave before he got to me. I still got to see him hit a long home run in a spring training game. Though I didn’t officially meet him, I will always have that memory.
So, what will that memory mean twenty years from now? Will I be able to tell everyone I saw a future Hall of Famer as he was about to break through, or will Bryant be just another player of whom most fans just have passing memories? That remains to be seen. I’ve seen one can’t miss prospect after another, indeed, miss, or at least never become the star they were supposed to: Patterson, Hee Seop Choi, Bobby Hill, Luis Montanez, Felix Pie, and of course, Mark Prior. Remember when everyone was putting Prior in the Hall of Fame before he even reached the majors? His brief major league career was derailed by injury rather than his inability to pitch at the major league level, but those prophecies look silly now.
I have never seen a player who has never played in the majors get as much attention as Kris Bryant. And now, after all the hype, after all the controversy about whether he should have broke camp with the big league club on Opening Day, he’s finally getting his chance. The fans are excited, and with good reason. I am pulling for him and sincerely hope he becomes a star. But I’m not ready to crown him the Cubs’ savior or anything close to it yet. He’ll have to forgive me, but I don’t have the energy to do that anymore. Despite his ridiculous minor league and spring training numbers, his major league line is an empty slate that he needs to fill. And until he does, he’s just another player trying to make a name for himself.