LAKELAND, Fla. — Darnell Coles was missing a pair of undershorts. And he said so. And several teammates helped him search.
“They were here a minute ago,” he announced. “Now, where did they go?”
This may not seem especially significant, even for spring training. But last year at this time, Darnell Coles would not have gambled aloud with a statement so innocent.
His underwear, gone? Are you kidding? He would have slid over to the clubhouse man, whispered the loss, and offered to pay for a new pair if they could just keep it their little secret.
But hang with ’em. So goes Darnell Coles’ most-used expression. And one of the few beautiful parts of the last Detroit baseball season for me was watching this young, nervous prospect with an assortment of Mickey Mouse T-shirts — who, during his first day of spring training, actually said hello to me five different times — hang with ’em, all of ’em, and grow into a bona fide third baseman with a future as promising as morning.
“What do you remember from that first day now?” Coles was asked Monday, a year later, after a workout at Joker Marchant Stadium.
“I remember that nobody talked to me,” he said. “And I was thinking, you know, guys like Tram (Alan Trammell) and Gibby (Kirk Gibson) and Darrell
(Evans), how these guys were making so much money, $700,000, $800,000,
$900,000, and wow! Like should I say something to them, or are they gonna just shine me on like a little nobody?
“But,” he added quickly, “they were great. They’ve been great. They make you feel part of the team soon enough. They razzed me then. They razz me now.”
They razz him about his wristbands — which he wears while dressing. They razz him about the way he walks, which is half ice-skate, half pogo stick. They razz him about his hair, about his youth (24), about his conversation, which sometimes goes so fast it seems to ricochet in different directions.
They do not razz him about his play. And that is significant. As the starting third baseman, he has captured the first merit badge of baseball. He has convinced them.
“I guess I’m like a sergeant now,” he said. “We’ve still got a few colonels and lieutenants, a general. But I’m probably up to sergeant.”
“What were you last year?” he was asked.
A private indeed, as comfortable as a tourist in Iceland. To have seen Coles in this clubhouse last spring was to see confusion, insecurity and tremendous talent balled into a hyperactive body. “He didn’t know anybody except me when he got here,” said Vada Pinson, the Tigers’ batting coach who had worked in Seattle during Coles’ time with the Mariners. “You could tell he was anxious to prove himself, and nervous about making mistakes.
“Sometimes he’d be in the batting cage, and I’d be behind it talking to someone and he’d yell, ‘Are you watching me? Are you watching me?’ Now, I can do both things at once, you know, watch and talk, but he needed to know that I was watching him, thinking about him.”
He also needed to know whether he was winning the job. And on that, he got little word. Sparky Anderson’s way is to decide what and when and where he wants. Informing the players is not a requirement.
“He still hasn’t told me I’m the third baseman,” Coles said Monday, laughing. But it was more serious last season. Coles thought that the slightest slipup could cost him the job. One morning, after making several errors in an exhibition game, he found his wife holding a Florida newspaper and shaking her head.
“You don’t want to read this, honey,” she said.
“It says if you don’t play, you probably won’t make the team.”
“Oh great,” he remembers thinking.
But these are old stories now, stories to be laughed at, because Coles made the team — and for some, made the season. Third base for the Tigers used to be a 100-watt socket filled with 60-watt bulbs. Finally, a light that shines.
“Have you raised your standards for this year?” Coles was asked.
“Well, yeah,’ he said. “My goals are to be as good as Mike Schmidt or Wade Boggs. I mean, I think I have the potential to be that good.
“I can be average, I can be pretty good. I want to be the best. I can be the best. I’m 24. I’ve got 15 years to do it. So I’m gonna do it.”
Now, granted, words are cheap, and Coles can race through words like a drinker through beer nuts. But he has some evidence — a .273, 20-home run, first full season, that would have been even better were it not interrupted by chicken pox.
His fielding was always adequate — at times, terrific, at moments, even spectacular. And with age comes improvement. Pinson said: “I told him,
‘You’ve already given them something they haven’t had for a while, offense and defense at your position. Now, just relax and do it.’ “
He has relaxed, and the difference in his attitude this year is obvious. He makes the jokes. He starts the conversations. He belongs. He may not be Dion, but he is one of the Belmonts. “We’re expecting Darnell to contribute this year,” said Trammell, one of his closest buddies. “That’s the difference.”
Monday afternoon, Coles spent an extra hour feeding balls into the batting cage machine for a minor league teammate, Rey Palacios. The other players had already gone home.
“Attaboy . . . hang with ’em,” Coles yelled, his chatter as constant as the mechanical pitches. ” . . . Hang with ’em . . . here it comes . . . attaboy. .
. . “
The sergeant working out the private.
What goes around, comes around.
“This I learned from last year,” Coles said afterward. “Anybody who wants to talk to me about what goes on with this team, what it’s like, I’ll talk to him. I’ll just tell him relax, do what you can do, and don’t worry about what you can’t do.”
He shrugged. “Hey. I went through it. I remember. I’ll be here for any guy who wants like that. Hang with ’em.”
So the second season is under way. And in time, a clubhouse man walked over and said, “Looking for these?” and Coles smiled. . . .
Who knows? Maybe this year, Sparky Anderson will actually tell him he has the job.
He already has his underwear back.