Just before the 1981 season, a prospect made a deal with a legend.
Scott Patterson was entering his second professional season in the Braves system and it was time to negotiate his contract with the club’s senior vice president: Hank Aaron.
The 22-year-old didn’t have an agent or advisor in the room with him. He was armed simply with his confidence and an arsenal that could back it up.
“I made a bet with him that if I lost one start as a starting pitcher in Durham that year that I would give all my salary back -- I was asking for more money than anyone on the team -- but if I went undefeated, I kept it all,” Patterson recalled. “LOL. I had gotten very competitive.”
Flash-forward 40 years, Aaron is still the Braves’ senior vice president, but Patterson is known for serving coffee as Luke Danes on “Gilmore Girls” rather than serving heaters on the diamond. The game also has changed, as pitching wins don’t carry the same weight they once did.
Patterson started playing catch with his dad at age 2, and by 7, “people started making a fuss over my baseball abilities.” But he didn’t like it. He didn’t get why his skills, and subsequently his coaches, singled him out at practice, causing resentment among his teammates.
He also didn’t understand why coaches and other adults felt the need to yell.
“It’s a kids' game and it’s meant to be played with fun and joy and these guys were ruining it with this overserious obsession on winning,” he said. “I simply loved to play. I am competitive, but, to me, baseball was always about the ease of it, the art. I smiled a lot. Never got nervous. Loved playing.”
Growing up, Patterson divided his time across many disciplines -- multiple sports, music and acting. He wasn’t thinking about becoming a pro ballplayer, instead focusing on grades and college. Patterson went to Rutgers University to study comparative literature. But baseball was still getting him noticed and the Braves selected him 12th overall in the secondary phase of the 1980 amateur Draft.
Although the Philadelphia native said he was a five-tool player and loved all the aspects of being a position player, the Braves signed him as a pitcher.
“I liked the organization and thrived because they have a loose structure there where you can be yourself while providing great coaching,” he said. “Hall of Famers everywhere. Lots of knowledge to soak up in a relaxed atmosphere."
With a 95 mph fastball and a splitter anchoring his repertoire, Patterson went 21-18 with a 3.81 ERA, 264 strikeouts and 142 walks over 357 innings, playing for Class A Anderson, Class A Durham and Double-A Savannah in his first two pro seasons.
Former catcher Tommy Thompson said Patterson was the type of teammate who could really fire up his batterymate.
"He was a fierce competitor. He was different in his own way, not in a bad way,” the longtime Minor League manager said. “When he crossed the line to pitch, he was incredibly focused and didn't give a [crap] about anything. He wasn't afraid to hit you. He wasn't afraid to pitch inside. He attacked the zone and he was a fierce competitor.
“We worked together well when I caught him. He had good stuff. His fastball was live, he had two-seam, four-seam. He had a breaking ball that he could throw at any time; it was more of a slider."
Two starts into the 1982 season, Patterson was traded to the Yankees. There, he was teammates with the best hitter he had faced: Don Mattingly. He watched how the now-Marlins manager “played chess with [the] pitcher.” Patterson also got to study Rickey Henderson, who would battle with Babe Ruth to be his No. 1 pick in an all-time Draft.
“When [Henderson] got on first base, he put on a show like I have never seen in the way he toyed with pitchers,” the hurler said. “He destroyed their minds, their confidence, and he would score in seconds.”
And in terms of fellow pitchers, Patterson said Dave Righetti stood above the rest. He loved the southpaw’s presence and dominance on the mound.
“He intimidated hitters with his stuff and his demeanor,” the right-hander said. “Fun to watch. Cocky. Cool. Total [renegade] on the mound.”
In the new organization, Patterson remained his own force. While some batters take comfort in knowing their former teammates won’t hit them when they square off, that was never the case for Thompson and Patterson.
With the Yankees/Braves rivalry fueling their competitive natures, the pair started their trash-talking as soon as Thompson stepped into the box.
“I want to say he threw a pitch up and in on me in Nashville, and it [ticked] me off and he stared me down,” the backstop recalled. “And I want to say, I don't have the records or the books, I think I hit a home run off of him in that at-bat. He stared me down the whole way and I was talking some [crap] to him.”
Thompson admired that competitive drive. Upon learning his former teammate became an actor, he said he was proud Patterson found success in another field.
“If I'm in a war, I'll tell you this, I want Scott Patterson in my cubbyhole,” Thompson said. “Because if we got down, we're going down fighting. And that's one of the best things I can say about him is he was a competitor and a fighter.”
In his first two seasons as a Yankees prospect, Patterson went 21-18 with 4.82 ERA, 187 punchouts and 162 walks over 343 1/3 frames. He made stops at Double-A Nashville and Triple-A Columbus.
During the 1984 season, New York began to transition him to the bullpen. And while he wasn't able to acclimate to the change right away -- he compiled a 5.40 ERA over 100 innings between the Sounds and Clippers -- at least he wasn't “bored” for four days between every start.
And although Patterson said the last pro season he loved playing was his fifth, the following year was his best season statistically with the Yankees. Coming out of the bullpen for Double-A Albany-Colonie and Columbus, he went 12-4 with a 2.36 ERA, 61 strikeouts and 29 walks in 84 innings across 48 appearances.
“I could throw a fastball 95 mph, and at 6-foot, 180 pounds, that looked impressive. But I hated pitching, absolutely loathed it,” he said. “What I loved was playing third base and shortstop, hitting, running the bases, stealing bases, etc. I loved playing baseball. Pitching isn’t playing baseball. It’s pitching.”
That offseason, the Rangers selected Patterson in the Rule 5 Draft. And while he never threw a regular-season pitch for Texas and ultimately was returned to New York, the experience left an impression.
At Spring Training with the Rangers, Patterson met former Major Leaguer Tom House, who developed a second career by using science to perfect the mechanics of athletes like Nolan Ryan and Tom Brady.
“What I do remember was his willingness to try something new and not [be] afraid to screw it up while he got comfortable with it,” House said. “One of the things we work on hardest is when you're working to improve, sometimes you have to get comfortable being uncomfortable. And Scott was one of those kids that didn't mind being [uncomfortable], if it made sense to him -- he saw how the process might help him get better -- he had no trouble going through that uncomfortable phase to make it work for him in the long haul."
The new thing ended up being what the pitcher described as “a mind-blowingly simply, safe and nasty slider.”
“I thought I had discovered plutonium,” Patterson said. “Was shocked at how simple and effective the pitch was against big league stars.”
The then-28-year-old tried it out at big league camp, facing a future Hall of Famer [although he's loath to say which one]. Patterson recalled getting the batter to whiff on a fastball up and in, a slider on the outside edge and a slider four inches off the plate.
“I was amazed, and happy,” he recalled. “It was the only time in my career I had a bona fide big league slider that could dominate anyone. What a feeling. And if you can control that pitch, you can win a lot of games anywhere.”
With his curveball deteriorating and his breaking stuff losing consistency over the years, the 1986 season proved to be his last. After 810 innings in the Minors, plus Winter League stints in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, Patterson had yet to make his Major League debut.
Looking back now on why The Show eluded him, he thinks about his initial interest as a position player instead of as a pitcher. Opting not to go into why he ended up on the mound, he simply said, “Bottom line - do not let anyone talk you into something you don’t believe in 100 percent.”
But the biggest challenge faced while grinding through the Minor Leagues still crosses Patterson's mind.
“Learning that if you are complaining about not getting your shot at the big time, then you are not improving your skill set,” he said. “It’s all about a set of skills, an arsenal. It’s also about consistency. But my excuse was always ‘I need to play every day, but I’m a starting pitcher and only pitch every fifth day.’”
Frustrated, Patterson left baseball, traveled through Europe and “got lost for 18 months.” He picked up his first professional acting credit in the 1992 action/adventure film “Intent to Kill.” A couple years later, he did make the Majors, at least in a movie, playing the Twins' Mike McGrevey in “Little Big League.” And “Seinfeld” fans will recognize Patterson as Elaine’s “spongeworthy” date.
Trusting his instincts, Patterson became a fan favorite on "Gilmore Girls." He played Luke, the somewhat curmudgeonly small-town diner owner almost always seen wearing a hat backwards. At times, Patterson sported a Minor League cap on the show, including the now-defunct Connecticut Defenders, but he didn't get to pick and choose which ones.
Patterson went on to portray Agent Strahm in the “Saw” franchise. He sings and plays the guitar in his band, SMITHRADIO. And, after years of serving joe on a television show, he started his own company, Scotty P’s Big Mug Coffee.
After all that, however, he still remembers what it was like to chase the ultimate cup of coffee.
He recalls winning the International League regular-season crown with Columbus in 1983, the joy of being around teammates playing a kids' game. He disliked the artificial turf at Cooper Stadium enough to prefer road trips while appreciating the Clippers' fans and employees.
He loved Durham because he found success on the field and love off it. Similarly, he loved Savannah since that's where he became a top Braves prospect ... and in true Hollywood tradition said, “I also met a girl there."
As for his record with the Bulls? Patterson went 9-0 with a 2.11 ERA over 98 innings in 13 starts before getting promoted to Savannah to secure his salary by proving himself to Hammerin’ Hank. The right-hander kept the momentum going, setting a Braves' Minor League record with 13 straight wins to start the season.
"It's the power of play. It's that managed aggression,” House said. “That edge that all the good ones have. And the fact that he's carrying it over, past playing days, is even better."
Kelsie Heneghan is a writer for MiLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @Kelsie_Heneghan.