WELL, WORDS OR NO WORDS COLES HAS THE JOB AT THIRD

LAKELAND, Fla. — Maybe they’re just waiting for the right moment. Some night next week, Darnell Coles will walk into the clubhouse and it will be dark. He’ll grope for the light switch. And when he flicks it on, all the Tigers will pop out with little party hats on and scream “Surprise!” and blow horns and then Coles will know he’s the third baseman, for sure.

But maybe not. Well. OK. Definitely not. Particularly not on Sparky Anderson’s team. Earn your place, be happy you’ve got it, and come to work ready to play. That’s the Sparky Spirit. “I don’t have to hold these guys’ hands,” he said. “They’re grown men.”

So even though Coles has been labeled a “definite” starter at third for the Tigers — “When did you know he’d be your starter?” Sparky was asked; “The first day,” he answered — the 23 year-old newcomer from Seattle is still waiting for the official word. Which may never come. Officially.

Until the lineup is announced on Opening Day. He doesn’t mind the wait

As of Tuesday morning, no one had told Coles the job was his except the media. In other words (as some players would quickly agree), no one who counts. The stories were out there, in print, with Sparky quotes and everything, but Darnell was taking nothing for granted. Ink, after all, has been known to come off in your hands.

So he keeps playing hard. And his only words with his manager have been
“Hi,” and maybe a “How ya’ doing?” here or there.

“I haven’t heard anything about me having the job,” he said before Monday’s game against St. Louis. “I’ve seen the newspaper stories but, hey, you know. I don’t assume anything. I think I’ve earned it. But then, sometimes I think if I have two lousy days in a row down here, it’s ‘So long.’ Back to the minors.

“If they’d told me for sure, if they said, ‘Darnell, you’re the third baseman,’ it probably would have eased my concern. But if they want to wait until the very last minute, that’s OK.”

Coles shrugged. Patience, he figures. But this is an anxious body, a lean firecracker with a baby face and curly hair, which seems to have its own ideas about where to grow. He is partial to Mickey Mouse shirts and California, his home state, and he claims to desire a laid-back attitude — “I wanna be low-key like Lance Parrish” — but he’s fighting nature there. Coles is low-key like a brownie is low-cal.

His emotion showed the first three games of spring, when he committed an error in each. “Scared,” he admitted. And it showed when he talked about Opening Day at Tiger Stadium. “I never played before 50,000 people before. Wow. I don’t even know how to get there. I’m gonna need a map.”

Which shows you he plans on being there. And, its says here, that would be a good thing. There’s no telling what kind of Tiger Coles will make, but he’s got the tools and he uses them best when he’s running on instinct, when he’s relaxed and confident. You don’t get that way shuffling between the minors and the majors.

Besides, Detroit fans deserve a break. Remember Gale Sayers’ motto, “I am third”? In recent years, the Tigers have had their own version: “I am third, unless, you know, somebody else is.”

Tom Brookens, Howard Johnson, Tom Brookens, Glenn Wilson, Tom Brookens, Enos Cabell, Tom Brookens, Chris Pittaro, Tom Brookens. . . .

Oh yes, what about Brookens? How can you not feel for the guy, slugging it out year after year? He’s been told by Sparky he won’t be the starter. Why does the bad news get the personal treatment? Maybe because Brookens, in Sparky’s eyes, has been around long enough to deserve at least that.

And maybe because Brookens, curiously, puts only so much stock in words, anyhow.

“What they say today isn’t always what they’re saying two weeks from today,” he observed. The man is not dumb. One of those baseball things

The simple fact is Sparky does things his way, and he doesn’t owe explanations. Maybe he’s still thinking it all over, given what happened with Pittaro last year.

“It doesn’t really matter,” said Coles. “I feel I proved myself. I don’t think there’s any doubt.” He paused. “Granted, I don’t make the decision. . .
. “

Ah, well. It’s one of those baseball things. You can’t blame Coles for wanting to know for sure. You can’t blame Sparky for wanting to run things his own way.

The rule of thumb is that you don’t figure you’re going north to Detroit until you’re looking down at it from an airplane window. But barring an earthquake, Darnell Coles has the job, words or no words. Absolutely nothing will change that. It’s written in stone. He is third.

Unless, you know, somebody else is.

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