by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

The phone call came in the morning, and by noon he had emptied his locker at Tiger Stadium and was headed for the parking lot. Nobody was around. That was fine. That was better.

“Throw some stuff in the car, hit the road, and I’m outta here,” said Darnell Coles, making a herky-jerky motion with his arm. “Goodby to this place.”

Goodby to this guy. The young man who was once labeled “the future” at third base for the Tigers has been sent to Pittsburgh, in exchange for a 34-year-old infielder named Jim Morrison. Gone? Just like that? A year ago Coles was a starter, a crowd favorite. The writers voted him second to Jack Morris as Tiger of the Year. Yet on Thursday night, in what would be his last game as a member of this team, he sat quietly on the bench while every non-pitcher got a chance to bat. Except him.

Goodby to this guy.

“FROM FAME TO S—!” he bellowed now, with a mock laugh that echoed off the concrete walls, “that’s what it’s been like for me!”

Then his voice lowered. He looked at his feet.

“Actually, it’s . . . it’s been really tough . . . “

Part of the game. That’s the expression players use when a teammate is traded. Part of the game, happens all the time. But this was a story that went unusually sour, unusually fast. Try out, make out, psych out, fade out. Darnell Coles didn’t just see “part” of the game in his 16 months here.

He saw most all of it.

How far had he fallen? As far as he had risen. He came into spring training last year all bubble gum and cartoons; you could hardly shut him up once he got talking. “I got a different Mickey Mouse for every day,” he once told a reporter, pointing to seven T-shirts with the famous Disney character.
“When I get to Detroit, I’m gonna get some more. You can never have too many Mickeys.”

He was named the starting third baseman — at age 23 — and once he hit Detroit, he didn’t have time to shop for shirts. On a team that was only good, and a tad too familiar, he was the new face, the promise of promise. Darnell Coles finished 1986 with 20 home runs, a .273 batting average and the gratitude of nearly every Tigers fan in the state. “At last! A third baseman!”

they seemed to say.

He did commercials. The radio and TV people sought him. He was easy to like, when things went well. He was one of the Tigers chosen this year for the pre-spring tour around Michigan, shaking hands and eating banquet meals and drumming up fan interest. “He’s so cute!” they would comment. “He’s so young! He’s so funny! Just think of how good he’ll be this year!”

“I love it up here,” he said then.

“Thank the Lord I am out of here,” he said on Friday.

What happened in between was a remarkable testament to the power of the brain turned in the wrong direction. Coles got off slowly in the spring, he tried too much too fast, and when it didn’t come, he tried even harder. His hitting suffered. His fielding suffered. His hands developed blisters. So did his confidence. When the regular season began, he was making mistake after mistake.

“It was ridiculous,” he said Friday. “No way I should have been playing that bad.” But the negative thoughts had slipped into his system like a coin in a washing machine, round and round, and he couldn’t shake them. He made three errors in one game. He made three errors in another. He would look to the dugout whenever he made a mistake, and the reaction he saw there, the shaking heads, the disgust, just made him more nervous. And he’d make another error. “It got to the point where a batter got up and I was praying, ‘Don’t hit it to me! Don’t hit it to me!’ ” he said a few weeks ago.

Who knows how these things start? Who knows how to end them? Coles claims he was ostracized by Sparky Anderson (Anderson denies this) and many of his teammates once his playing slacked. He claims that made things worse. There was a clubhouse skirmish following a game in Texas — Coles and a few teammates had to be separated — and since then, he had talked to a select few.

“Hi and bye,” he said of his relationship with many of the Tigers. When asked Friday about his relationship with Anderson, he rolled his eyes.

“What relationship?” he said.

Give Coles this much credit. If you bothered to ask him, he would admit that all of it — the 17 errors, the .181 batting average, the eventual trip to the minors, the loss of his job to Tom Brookens — was his fault. “I blame no one else,” he said Friday. He is not the easiest guy to be around when things are sour. He is moody and sensitive on a team where do-your-job-and- don’t-complain is the preferred style.

So obviously, Coles needed a change of scenery. The Tigers had no intention of using him at third if they could help it. And a brooding non-player is not the kind of influence a pennant-contending team wants around.

He had gone to Bill Lajoie, the Tigers’ GM, a few weeks ago demanding to be traded. Lajoie had pacified him. “He told me, ‘You’re our future,’ ” Coles said after that meeting, “and we’re not gonna just trade away our future.” Not, at least, unless they can get something they wanted in return.

Friday, they apparently got what they wanted. A 34-year-old veteran is not a 25-year-old second-year man. But youth is a relative factor. In truth, Coles had no future here. He had been given “his chances” by this organization.

The trade was made. Lajoie couldn’t reach Coles — Coles’ phone was off the hook — so he called Dwight Lowry, who lives near Coles, and Lowry’s wife walked over to the house and told Darnell to call the office. Coles turned to his wife. “I’m gone somewhere,” he said.

And he was. To Pittsburgh.

Try out, make out, psych out, fade out.

Move out.

Hey, this is great. I’m happy,” said Coles, his hands dug in his pockets.
“I’m going to a team where most people are 24, 25, 26. Not to say this is an old team, but just more veterans. Maybe I didn’t fit in, for whatever reason.”

He paused. “Maybe when you make errors, you don’t fit in.”

He said he would miss Detroit. The fans. Several of the players, most notably Larry Herndon, whom he said, “really helped me through a lot of these bad times.

“But hey. Whatever. As far as I’m concerned, my season starts today when I set foot in, what is it? Three Rivers Stadium? Is that what it’s called?”

Yes, he was told.

“My season starts when I get there,” he said.

Goodby to this guy. It’s hard to say if the Tigers gave up too soon on Coles. You would think so, by his age. But perhaps what was broken they saw as unmendable. Or perhaps the chemistry was simply bad. Baseball is not always about right and wrong. More often, it’s about fitting in.

“Do you have anything to say to your old teammates before you go?” he was asked.

He thought about it.

“I hope they win it all,” he said.

And he walked to his car. That’s it? That’s it. Part of the game. Darnell Coles is not as sunshine-young as when he first joined the Tigers. But he took his better and his worse and he climbed into the front seat, closed the door, and drove out of the stadium lot, past a small group of fans waiting in line for tickets. CUTLINE Darnell Coles, wife, Shari, and Darnell Jr. wait for their flight to Pittsburgh.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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