LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. Cubs fans could be forgiven if they saw the box score from the Gwinnett Braves-Pawtucket Red Sox game June 12 and did a double take. That likely would have been followed by a wistful pause to ponder what might have been.
That day, would-be Greatest Pitcher in Cubs History Mark Prior came on in relief for Pawtucket in the eighth inning to face Felix Pie. You might remember him as the would-be-franchise-cornerstone-turned-Gwinnett-outfielder. Prior promptly hit Pie with a pitch; he retaliated by stealing second base.
You also wouldn't be alone in having your mind blown by that matchup.
"Wow man, that's … I go back when I see him and I think about 'wow, Prior,'" Pie told RedEye in an exclusive interview before a recent Gwinnett game.
He's known as one of the biggest busts in Cubs history, but Pie swears he holds no bitterness toward the team or the city.
"I can complain about that; I can be like, 'Oh, Chicago didn't give me an opportunity or nothing like that,'" he said. "All I have to do now is keep going, keep going and play hard and see what can happen."
Perhaps only someone like Anthony Rizzo understands what it's like to be Pie, a former Cubs savior du jour. It's a long way from patrolling left field in a mostly empty minor league ballpark a half-mile from a strip mall 45 minutes outside Atlanta.
Five years ago, Pie wore the "crown" currently sitting atop Rizzo's noggin as the Can't Miss Kid. Instead of being the wily old veteran as part of the latest Cubs rebuilding effort, he's trying to fight his way back to the big leagues.
"It's very tough [having those expectations] but you can learn," Pie said. "You can learn and you can't have that [label] affect you or your career."
Pie, like Rizzo this year, arrived with the Cubs amid a tornado of hype in 2007. In his first game at Wrigley, he laced a double off Cubs legend Greg Maddux, then pitching for San Diego. There was no reason to believe his story wasn't destined to end in championship parades.
One problem: Pie, like Kevin Orie, Corey Patterson, and countless others before him, missed.
"Everything happened for a reason," he said, shrugging.
In just 130 games with the Cubs over two seasons, Pie struggled at the plate, hitting .223 with three home runs and 30 RBIs, never coming close to fulfilling the expectations the team and bleacher bums had for him.
"You can look back and think and say no one can understand [what I went through in Chicago]," Pie said. "That happened in baseball, so I can't shut it down. I have to keep going, working hard."
It's been a long, winding, and somewhat humbling road for Pie since leaving Chicago.
He was traded by the Cubs to Baltimore following the 2008 season, where he saw his numbers improve slightly (.259, 14 HRs, 67 RBIs) with increased playing time, but only enough to stick around the majors for only one full season, in 2009.
After the Orioles decided not to re-sign him, he went to Spring Training with Cleveland, where he was released after failing to earn a bench spot. A strong early-season showing with the independent Camden RiverSharks earned Pie another chance in the form of a minor league deal with Atlanta.
Pie said he didn't have a chance to speak with Prior before the game, but he does keep in touch with current Cubs including Starlin Castro, Carlos Marmol and Alfonso Soriano. Castro in particular, Pie said, has big things ahead of him if he can stay on track.
"He's proven everything he can do," Pie said. "This kid is special. I think he's a great kid and he puts everything together. He's quick enough, so that's good."
The Braves don't return to Wrigley this season, so if Pie does get called up, he won't have to worry about coming back to the Friendly Confines just yet. When asked if he's thought about it, however, one gets the feeling it's crossed his mind.
"That's the question I get asked, but only God knows what's going to happen," he said, laughing.
Matt Lindner is a RedEye special contributor.