CLEVELAND — It wasn’t exactly a call to glory. Then, again, who knows? The Tigers were trotting onto the field for practice when that gravelly voice shattered the cold, mid-morning air.
“Darnell! . . . DAR-NELL!”
Darnell Coles turned around to see Sparky Anderson waving him in. Coles ran to the dugout, sat down next to his manager, and listened.
“I’m batting you second,” Anderson began. He then launched into a mini-lecture about the finer points of the role. He stood up with a make-believe bat in his hands. “If you’re in a hit and run, get your bat on the ball no matter what . . . ” He crouched into a bunt position. “If you have to bunt, you lay it down this way . . . “
Sparky was animated. He made a point, then slapped Coles on the knee. Said something else. Slapped him on the knee. Sat down. Stood up. Slapped him on the knee. When Sparky sent him back to the field, you half-expected Coles to be limping. Or at least rubbing his leg. Sparky turned and remarked, “The kid is super. He’s fast. He absorbs everything you tell him.” Sparky bobbed back and forth. It was the kinetics of excitement. Sparky was excited.
Sparky was excited?
How about Coles? Seven days ago he was the squeaky-new question mark of the Tigers’ infield. Now he was going from No. 9 in the batting order to the spot that Sparky said “makes you involved in everything. Everything revolves around the No. 2 hitter.”
Nice week, huh? The pre-game ritual And quite a change from spring training. Remember that communication between Sparky and Coles in Florida was as frequent as a love ballad by Ozzy Osbourne. Coles found out he’d won the third-base job by reading the papers. Sparky barely said two words. He didn’t feel he had to.
“Now it’s every day,” Coles said. “We have a meeting before each game. Sometimes in his office, sometimes out on the field. Just a minute or so. He asks me what I did right or wrong. Then he tells me. I mean, it’s every day.”
It’s fun to watch them out there in the hours before the stands are filled. On Sunday, for example, Coles was fielding grounders at third. Sparky stood 10 feet behind him. Coles crouched over. Sparky crouched over. Coles charged the ball, Sparky charged behind him. They moved as if attached by a cord.
Sparky and Spunky.
Coles, you’ll recall, has pinball energy, the slinky grace of a Persian cat, and the wide-eyed look of a 12-year-old Little Leaguer. He looks young. Talks young. And plays young.
Which is why, it says here, Sparky’s obvious belief in him is a wise move. If Coles, 23, has an Achilles’ heel, it’s his lack of confidence — the result of being cast aside too many times in Seattle. With him, emotion is a two-way street. The more confidence Coles senses, the more he plays with.
And how much has Sparky shown him? Only Coles, Kirk Gibson and Lou Whitaker have started every game thus far at their respective positions.
“The nicest thing here,” Coles said before Sunday’s game, “is that I know if I have a bad day, I’m going to be out there again the next day with a chance to redeem myself.”
‘You and me, kid’ That theory gets tested today. In Sunday’s 8-2 loss to Cleveland, Coles went 0-for-5 in his new spot, including a flyout with the bases loaded in the fourth inning. But, he says, Sparky has assured him the No. 2 position is his — with Whitaker moving down to bat third. “I didn’t put Darnell in there to take him out tomorrow,” Sparky said.
That’s the cherry atop week No. 1. And if they were all this hectic, Coles would be in the hospital by June. Consider this: Coles began last week by bumming a ride to Opening Day with Alan Trammel — at whose house Coles and his wife and daughter were staying. Since then, he has moved into an apartment, gotten three hits off Phil Niekro, committed his first error, signed autographs in every conceivable location, taken his first Tiger road trip, become buddies with Larry Herndon, Lance Parrish and Trammell, quieted the ever-present “who’s our third baseman?” talk, and moved from ninth to second in the lineup.
Yeah. Well. All in a week’s work, right?
True, no Sparky lineup is for long. Written in stone? Not quite. Whipped cream, maybe. But for now, Coles is enjoying the decision as much as he is the attention from his white-haired boss.
“I like it,” he said. “He wants me to excel. And that’s what I plan to do.”
Just before he sent Coles out to Sunday’s warm-ups, Sparky slapped him on the knee (again) and said, “You and me, kid.”
Sparky and Spunky.
It’ll be an interesting couple.