COLES FEELS REMOVED FROM TIGERS’ FEAST

This is how bad it had gotten for Darnell Coles. He was playing third base and praying the ball would go elsewhere. “Not just once in a while, all the time,” he says, shaking his head. “It was like, don’t hit it to me! Don’t hit it to me! And if you’re gonna hit it to me, then let me just step on the bag for an out. Don’t make me throw it.”

Strange things were happening when Coles threw the ball. Sometimes it would sail past the first baseman, or over the catcher — that is, if Coles fielded it at all. He made three errors in one game. He made three errors in another game. The mistakes seemed to lead to more mistakes, and in his mind, everybody was noticing and nobody was forgetting. He fought with himself. Then he fought with his teammates. Between innings of one game he turned and threw a ball over the stadium roof, out of sheer frustration.

He fell into a batting slump, and, while taking extra practice, injured his right side. Disabled list. In June, he was sent to the minors. He came back and found his job taken and his future in doubt. “Uncomfortable,” is the word he now uses for the relationship with his teammates.

“Do you feel the Tigers have given up on you?” he is asked.

“Yeah, I do,” he says, softly.

The Tigers are doing well these days, playing hot, laughing in the clubhouse. They are dancing in the shadow of first place in the AL East. Good times, these are. As much fun as a picnic.

But not for everyone.

He sits in the stands of an empty Tiger Stadium, his feet up on the seat in front of him. It is Thursday, an off-day, and in an hour he has a commitment. He will speak with a group of inner-city children about hope and promise. And when he returns, he will meet Bill Lajoie, the Tigers’ GM, to find out whether either of those things still exists for Darnell Coles in Detroit.

A year ago, Coles was the golden boy, the third baseman the Tigers had always dreamed of but never had. He hit .273 and cracked 20 home runs. His first full season. He was only 24. “Lemme tell ya something about this kid,” manager Sparky Anderson would begin, with that grin that suggests a campaign speech is coming.

In the early days, Anderson and Coles were often seen together on the field, the manager a few feet behind the player, offering comment. “Sparky and Spunky,” someone tagged them; but Coles now says Sparky’s input was inconsistent. “He’d be critical when I made mistakes and when I did good he’d say, ‘Don’t let it go to your head.’ I felt like, ‘Why take the wind out of my sails if I had a good game?’

“Then, this year, when I started going bad, he had a few closed-door meetings with me. It was like 180 degrees different than last year. And now, there isn’t much communication at all.”

Anderson balks at that. (“I’ve never spoken to a player more in my 18 years of managing!”) But the problem may be less the amount of conversation than the nature of it. If wishes came true, Coles would have Sparky throw him daily doses of encouragement: “You’re my third baseman, Darnell. Don’t worry about it.” But this is not a wish business. And the Tigers, under Anderson, are a club on which the quiet professional gets the gold star. Veterans are leaders. Sparky does not think he needs to stroke his younger players verbally. Do your job; keep your mouth shut; be prepared at all times. They could make that the clubhouse credo.

Coles has never fit that mold well. He is, by nature, gregarious, impulsive, the kind of guy whose thoughts and words swirl together and come out rapid-fire. At times he is as boyish as his face, yet he is honest and funny and he is sensitive, too much so, because he takes in everything. He thinks about what people are saying, what they are thinking, how they are looking at him. Last year, the good year, that helped him. People said good things. The feedback gave him confidence.

This year that same trait hurt him, dug him a hole right from the start of spring training. He came in beefed-up from weights. The Tigers weren’t crazy about that. He pressed hard too early. It cost him. When he made too many early errors, he was told to take extra fielding practice. “Right after the games,” he laments. “It’s kind of like punishment. Everybody’s still sitting in the stands and now Darnell’s gotta go take ground balls.”

He was embarrassed. It worsened. He made 13 errors in the spring. He figured the regular season would be a clean slate, but after seven games, he already had six errors. On April 14, in Kansas City, he booted two ground balls and overthrew an easy out. The mistakes led to seven runs and the Tigers lost. “I wanted to cry after that game,” he says.

Five weeks later, it happened again. In Texas. Three errors. The Tigers lost. By this point, Coles’ batting average was terrible, too. His concentration was clearly troubled. “That night in Texas was probably the point where they’d seen enough,” he says. “That might have been the downfall of the season right there.”

“Did you realize it then?” he is asked. “Did you realize you had just witnessed a turn of your career in Detroit?”

“To be honest,” he says, glumly, “I had witnessed that the night before.”

The night before, in a game the Tigers had won, Coles had a confrontation with a teammate while on the field. It led to several more in the clubhouse. Angry words were exchanged. He was accused of not being a team player. Coles had to be restrained. “I was frustrated. Some of the guys weren’t telling me what to do because I should do it, but like, ‘Darnell, get your butt over there and do it!’ So I said goodby to that stuff. I straightened it out. And now nobody messes with me.”

“And nobody talks to you?” someone asked.

“I’m not losing any sleep over that,” he says.

Which is not true. But this is also part of Coles’ persona; a tough streak that belies his sensitive underbelly. Know this: Coles is hurting. This is a guy who, rightly or wrongly, feels as guilty about disappointing people as he does about disappointing himself. Some people can take a thunderstorm of bad news, towel off, and forget it. Darnell Coles, like many of us, stays wet.

So he took his problems on the field with him, and when routine plays came his way, he was suddenly gripped with the shiver of making another mistake. “A ball would be hit to me and I’d say to myself, where do I throw it? OK. Throw it to second. And I’d throw to first instead. Crazy stuff!

“I’d see Lou (Whitaker) running to the bag and rather than take a chance of throwing it wrong and out into center field, I’d throw it to first. It went whoooop — see ya.”

He shakes his head. “It was pure stupidity on my part. I was worrying more about what was going on in the dugout than what was happening on the field. You’d come in after making an error or not getting a hit and somebody would be waving the white flag or shaking their head and it was like, ‘What the hell did I do now?’

“So you go back out there thinking about that stuff, wondering what they’re thinking and — boom! — a ball is hit to you and you throw it and it’s like” — he motions toward the sky — “see you later.”

And pretty soon it was. He was sent to Toledo, the Triple-A farm club, ostensibly to work out his injury.

And everything else.

Who knows why people get into mental slumps? Who knows how people get out of them? But baseball is a bad place to work through personal troubles. The game has never tolerated fear. Break a leg, you’re OK. Lose your nerve, you might as well be a leper. The clubhouse is a cocoon, great if you belong but suffocating if you think you don’t. “After (the confrontation) most of the players were just cordial, you know, hi-and-bye stuff,” says Coles. It was clear he felt isolated.

And it goes on, at least in Coles’ mind. Darrell Evans, one of the veterans who has criticized the former third baseman, says now that “the past is the past” and the best thing for Coles is to stay ready to contribute whenever called upon. That is Anderson’s philosophy as well. It is part of the
“good soldier” mold that constitutes the Tigers, and it is good advice, if you can accept it.

But it is hard for Coles to forget that last year he was a starter, the guy they were all talking about, maybe the most promising player out there. “I guess I feel I deserved more of a shot based on what I did last year. I’ve only got like 140 at- bats this season. But there’s not much I can do about it. I don’t make out the lineup cards.”

It would be nice to see Coles regain his status and his confidence. But it is a struggle, it would be for anybody. If he tries to fit back in, pretend it never happened, it makes the team feel better, but hurts his pride. If he remains aloof, it might make him feel right, but it will get him nowhere.

This is an unhappy time,” Coles admits. He would talk to Lajoie about his future, his options, all the things a troubled player sees a GM about. He would emerge from that meeting a bit more assured, at least enough to try hard for the rest of this season. He is clearly a better player than a .174 average and 16 errors. Last year was not a fluke.

But last year, in management’s mind, is last year. For now, Coles will play only right field on occasion, as he did Saturday. “He will not get back to being the regular third baseman this year,” Anderson says. “Tommy
(Brookens) has earned that. Tommy won the job. That’s not unusual.”

“What about next year?” he is asked.

“That’s too far off,” he answers.

It is hardly a ringing endorsement. Back in April, Anderson was saying:
“Coles is my third baseman. Once I commit to a guy, that’s it.”

Times change. Attitudes change. Coles thinks about that now. He thinks about those first terrible weeks when everything came unraveled. He thinks about how he might have approached spring training differently, taken it slower. He thinks about the criticism from his teammates, some of which was justified, some of which was not. He thinks about the night in Texas, and the players he alienated, and the manager with whom he cannot seem to click. He thinks about the fans who adore him, and about the night when, with those fans watching, he threw the ball over the roof, and Anderson yanked him the next inning, and lectured him later about “moves that could ruin a guy’s career.” He thinks about the past, the present, the future, what will happen, what should have happened, what might happen. This is where it all begins, the whole of Darnell Coles’ mini-nightmare. He thinks and thinks. Sometimes too much.

“When I compare this to last year, it’s unbelievable,” he says, sitting in that stadium seat with his feet up. “The attitudes, everything that’s happened. It’s, oh, just unbelievable. But it taught me never to expect anything. To always be prepared.

“I feel I can be an everyday player. That time in the minor leagues helped get my confidence back. It doesn’t look like I’m gonna play here full time, not this season, but I still think I have as much talent as anybody, and I’m not gonna let anybody tell me I can’t do anything. Nuh-uh.”

He sighs, and looks out on the empty ball field, baking in the sun. Empty stands. Empty dugouts. How easy would life be if the slate was this clean? No errors, no slumps, no anger, no embarrassment, no fear.

No such luck.

“How much of this is your fault?” Darnell Coles is finally asked.

He turns and shrugs.

“All of it,” he says. CUTLINE Darnell Coles

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