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Monday, April 28, 2008

Book Review: "The 33-Year-Old-Rookie"

A few years ago, a journeyman utilityman hit almost .500 in spring training for the Philadelphia Phillies. He could play catcher, third and first, and he could flat out hit the baseball. He had never made a major league club, rising as high as AAA with several organizations, and he had played winters in Mexico and Venezuela, among other places. In all likelihood, he was tagged as a career minor-leaguer, a guy who would fill out a roster at Triple A so as to enable prospects on the way up to get seasoning.

The player didn't make the team, even if all of his teammates thought that he had the team made. The reason? Well, the team had a couple of catchers, it needed a fifth outfielder, and it traded for David Dellucci of the Texas Rangers, who had hit 28 homers the prior season. The real reason -- as the author of the book points out, the front office probably had figured there was a reason why this guy had played independent league ball and in the minors for the 11 years since he finished up at Concordia College. So, the logical thing to do was send him down.

Many players would have sulked, but once again Chris Coste had to shrug off disappointment, as he had to do mostly every year in the minors after he had left the independent league. Why? He was a good catcher, but they didn't always let him catch. He could throw runners out -- even from his knees -- but somehow it didn't register in front offices. He also could hit, but there were other prospects in his way. Did he give it up after these disappointments? No, he just resolved to work harder.

To show how irrational front offices can be, Coste got sent down to the Phillies' AAA club and promptly hit .177 in the first month or so, as he had gone into the worst slump of his career. Then, the Phillies' catchers got hurt and a utilityman retired, and a place opened up on the big-club roster. That's right, he hit about .462 in the spring and didn't make the club, and then he was hitting .177 early in the season and gets called up.

And all he does is hit .328 in 198 at-bats, with 7 homers and becomes the personal catcher for veteran Jamie Moyer and young sensation Cole Hamels.

So what happens after that season? You'd figure he'd have the team made, right? Wrong! The Phillies signed veteran Rod Barajas to share catching duties with rookie Carlos Ruiz (this duo was replacing Mike Lieberthal and Sal Fasano from the year before), causing Coste to get sent down to the Phillies' AAA squad once again. Once again, though, injuries and poor performances got him called up, and again he didn't disappointed. I had the privilege of being at a Pirates-Phils game last summer. In the midst of a 6-run inning, Coste hit a 3-run homer, the resulting ovation was so loud it morphed into a curtain call -- Coste's first ever curtain call in the majors. And it couldn't have happened to a better competitor or a more deserving Major Leaguer.

The "33 Year-Old Rookie" isn't a wild a tale, say, as Jim Morris's "The Oldest Rookie" (the book that gave rise to the Disney movie "The Rookie"), if only because there was a considerable gap between when Morris thought his Major League dreams had ended and when they were resurrected. That difference, though, does not make Coste's book any less compelling. Born to a 16 year-old single mother, living in a housing project but surrounded by love and people who cared, Coste willed himself into becoming an outstanding baseball player. His baseball life was, has been and is a journey -- to junior college, college and then independent leagues before moving from one organization to another in the minors. All the while, he kept his faith in himself and his work ethic, and he never quit. His is a tale of determination, and instead of letting every disappointment define him, he used it to motivate him. Time and tim again.

Coste wrote the book himself, and it's a very good read. Read it yourself, give it to a high-school kid, have that kid read it and discuss it with you. There's a good lesson in Chris Coste's journey, which is this: "there's no telling how far you can go if you believe in yourself, work hard, learn from your disappointments and use them to motivate you."

There's a good reason why this guy is a fan favorite in Philadelphia, even among stars like Hamels, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley.

He's Rocky Balboa in a Phillies uniform.

It doesn't get much better than that.


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