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Pie turning out to be scout's dream04/26/2007 12:00 PM ET
By Carrie Muskat / MLB.com
CHICAGO -- The first time scout Jose Serra saw Felix Pie, the future Cubs outfielder was 16 and carrying his shoeshine kit.
Serra was at a tryout camp in San Pedro de Macoris, looking for potential ballplayers. The coastal city in the Dominican Republic has produced Major Leaguers such as Alfonso Soriano, George Bell, Tony Fernandez and Sammy Sosa. Who knew what Serra would find?
But the teenage boys on the field just weren't right. Serra was disappointed.
"We went to try out six guys and didn't like anybody we saw," Serra said. "We said we were looking for better bodies, guys who were better athletes. And there was Felix standing in front of the dugout."
Pie had not come to the ballpark to try out. His baseball had been limited to playing in the streets, using a cutoff milk carton as a glove, or borrowing one from someone else.
"I pointed to Felix," Serra said, "and said, 'We like bodies like that kid,' and they told me, 'That kid runs good and he has a good arm, he's all right.' I said, 'OK, let's try him out.'"
Like hundreds of other youngsters in the Dominican Republic, Pie shined shoes in the city as a way to pocket extra change to help feed his family. He had three brothers and two sisters, and lived in a small, cramped house. His parents had separated. Life was tough. Baseball was one way off the island.
Serra borrowed some spikes from one kid and a glove from another, and Pie took the field.
"We liked what we saw," Serra said. "He hit first, then he threw and ran. We said, 'Hey, this is the guy we're looking for.' We liked it, so we went to his mother's house and signed him right away. It was his lucky day."
Today, Pie can pay someone to shine his shoes. The rookie is starting in center field for the Chicago Cubs. He impressed Cubs manager Lou Piniella in Spring Training, and was batting .444 (16-for-36) with more walks than strikeouts in 11 games at Triple-A Iowa before his promotion. When Soriano injured his hamstring on April 16, the Cubs called up Pie, and he made quite a first impression.
In his first big-league game on April 17, Pie hit an RBI double in the fifth, scored the tying run on Derrek Lee's single, and threw out a potential game-winning run at home in the 10th. It was his first Major League hit, RBI, run, and assist. The rookie will want to get a video of this one.
"No, I felt fine," Pie said, when asked if he was nervous in his Major League debut. "I feel like I'm playing in my hometown."
His throw home was a perfect strike -- the Cubs haven't seen an accurate arm like that from their outfielders since Andre Dawson roamed right from 1987-92.
"It was real heads-up on his part," said Cubs catcher Michael Barrett, the recipient of Pie's throw. "He was very aggressive and [with] a lot of accuracy. Awesome play. It was straight in the air -- I think they clocked it at 105 [mph] on the radar."
It's taken Pie a lot longer to get from San Pedro de Macoris to center field at Wrigley. Serra, 35, has three children. Pie became his fourth when he signed.
"I said, 'If I sign this guy, there's no way for him to practice right or eat right,' and he started living with me," Serra said.
The 16-year-old Pie would work out at the Cubs' training academy, located south of the capital city of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. When it closed, he returned to Serra's house to continue his training, to get regular meals. That's when Pie met Marino Encarnacion, a track star in the Dominican Republic.
A sprinter, Encarnacion took Pie to the track to work with him on his running. Three times a week, around 6 a.m., you could find Pie on the beach near the malecon, or boardwalk, in San Pedro de Macoris, wearing a belt that was attached to a tire he dragged behind him as he ran in the sand. Pie would run for 50 feet, stop, then run again.
It's the same workout Sosa did. Encarnacion, 37, worked with Sosa, too.
Pie didn't balk at the hard work. What has taken some time is getting his swing right. This winter, he played for Licey in the Dominican Winter League, and struggled at the plate. Piniella took him aside in Spring Training and suggested Pie widen his stance and flatten his bat. It seems to be working.
There's no doubt he can play center. Pie added to his personal highlight video on April 21 against St. Louis when he made a potential run-saving catch in the second inning, tracking down Adam Kennedy's fly ball on the run in straightaway center. He also ended the third with another great running catch in the gap in left center to rob Jim Edmonds of an extra-base hit.
"I'm not thinking about the wall," Pie said. "I'm thinking about catching the ball. I know if I'm close to the wall or not."
He does know it's brick, right?
"I know," Pie said with a smile. "When we play, I don't think about that."
"He's a great center fielder and he'll do some fun things out there and help us out," said Cubs pitcher Jason Marquis, who threw seven scoreless innings that day, mainly because of the rookie's defensive play. "I like him out there. He's taking charge in the outfield. To be a young guy like that thrown in the mix, especially with a team expected to win, he's not afraid to take charge out there."
Serra and Encarnacion were in Chicago, too, for the Cubs-Cardinals series. General manager Jim Hendry invited the two so they could share in Pie's debut.
"He's such a great kid," Serra said. "When I first saw him, I knew I'd never have problems with him living in my house with my family. He treats me like a father, he treats my wife and kids like a mother and brothers.
"He really appreciates everything we did," Serra said. "It was a great day when he called me [about being called up]. He said, 'Where are you at? Are you sitting?' He said, 'I'm going to give you the news. I'm going to the big leagues in the morning.' He was so excited."
Pie admitted he didn't sleep after Iowa manager Buddy Bailey told him he was going to the Majors. He didn't have to worry about housing. Soriano, 31, had an extra room in his Chicago condo. The two were roommates in Spring Training, and now Pie, 22, has someone to bunk with in the big leagues.
"Soriano helps him so much," Serra said. "I don't know if anyone has done that for anyone else. Soriano is like a father for him right now."
"That's my best friend on the team, the first guy I met when I came to the Chicago Cubs," Soriano said of Pie. "I'm very happy for him that he's in the big leagues."
Now, the two are together in the outfield. The Cubs have waited to promote Pie to the big leagues until a full-time job was available. Piniella does have too many outfielders, but Pie is the best defensively in the group. Is he ready for the big leagues?
"I think he's ready," Serra said. "I didn't think he was going to be the way he is right now in the big leagues. He acts like he's been here five years. He's got a smile that everybody likes. He loves what he's doing. I think he'll be all right."
Pie spent all last season at Iowa while most of his Minor League teammates were called up to the Chicago because of injuries. It feels as if the 22-year-old has been waiting a long time.
"It's my dream," Pie said. "The first time I played baseball, it's my dream to play here in the big leagues."
He can put that shoeshine kit away.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.