Don’t Let the W Fool You

Boxing’s Return to Brooklyn and Brownsville’s Thirst for Boxing

Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos/Getty Images Phil Coke

Mop-up Duty

Phil Coke's path to the World Series with the Tigers was full of late nights, fast food, and doing whatever it took to pay the bills

Game 3 of the American League Championship Series, runners on first and second, two outs, bottom of the ninth, one-run lead, white-hot hitter at the plate, 42,490 fans screaming their asses off.

Phil Coke has run the count to 3-2 against Raul Ibanez. The next pitch could turn an entire season. Get Ibanez out, and Coke’s Tigers take a commanding 3-0 series lead, pushing them to the brink of the World Series. Fail, and a dangerous Yankees team gains new life, and who knows what happens from there. Coke checks the runners, kicks, and fires.

Curveball. Ibanez waves meekly. Strike three.

Here was the signature moment of Coke’s career, helping his team to a World Series by shutting down his former team, the one that drafted him, developed him, and finally traded him. Like any world-class athlete, he’d spent countless hours working and training toward his goal. Coke knew he wanted to play in the big leagues from the time he was 3 years old, gaining inspiration from watching Giants games while growing up in Sonora, California. What followed was a lifetime of chasing a dream, years and years of throwing, running, lifting, and more throwing. But to capture the essence of the man, you need to look beyond the mound, the treadmill, or the weight room.

To understand Phil Coke, you need to understand chimney repair.

“You have to have a limited fear of heights. Of anything, really. You have to be able to put up with being dirty. I mean nasty dirty. Coal-colored dirty. You’re covered in ash from head to toe. And you smell terrible. You’re rebuilding the innards of chimneys. You have to go in, put a liner in there, install a wood-burning insert in the actual fireplace. You learn how to use a plasma cutter. An acetylene torch. All kinds of cool, fun stuff.”

What else?

“Installing hot tubs, working on in-ground pools. Air-duct cleaning. You wouldn’t believe the stuff you see in air ducts.”

Like what?

“Rodent skeletons. I could never tell for sure if they were mice or squirrels … something. Definitely some kind of rodents.”

Forget pitching with the game on the line in the ALCS. Merely coming close to making it to The Show wasn’t something anyone would have believed for Coke.

He was 11 when he finally got his first chance to pitch in a Little League game. His coach said his hands were too small to throw a changeup. So he paired his fastball with a knuckleball instead. He pitched and played outfield and first base at Sonora High School. Wrestled, too, gaining a reputation as someone who would frighten you with his intensity. In his senior year, the impossible happened: He got drafted. OK, the Florida Marlins picked Coke as a draft-and-follow in the 49th round of the 2001 amateur draft, 1,450th overall and with no signing bonus. Still, Coke says he had no idea that he was good enough to get drafted and never thought anyone from a major league team had seen him play.

“I had to work my tail off just to compete with other guys,” Coke said, relaxing at home after the Tigers’ ALCS sweep with his wife, Bobbie, and 3-month-old daughter, Mickenzie. “It seemed like everyone else was so much better than I was.”

You couldn’t blame him for wondering how it had happened. Most of Coke’s practice time growing up came by himself. He’d throw balls through a spare tire, then retrieve them. He threw batting practice to himself, tossing balls in the air, hitting them, then having his dog fetch them and bring them back. He tried playing catch with his little brother, but that ended quickly after he kept hurting the poor kid’s hand. His dad, Doug, was supportive, buying him his first baseball mitt the day 3-year-old Phil declared his life’s ambition. He also made young Phil work for everything. A prison guard by day, Doug also served as vice-president of the local Little League. He’d take Phil to the local fields to do all manner of grounds work — mowing lawns and maintaining infields, building mounds and rebuilding backstops. Doug was very much a blue-collar guy. He raised a blue-collar son.

There are thousands of kids who found their way to the big leagues with the help of hard-driving dads. But Coke’s odds of making it seemed to grow longer with each passing year.

He never signed with the Marlins, opting to go to San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton instead. The Yankees drafted him in the 26th round in 2002, and this time he signed, for $80,000. The struggles began almost immediately. Coke made his short-season debut in 2003 in the Gulf Coast League, returned the next season, and ran into the first of his bouts with elbow trouble. He finally got a clean shot at starting the next year … and was terrible, posting a 5.42 ERA, giving up 122 hits, and striking out just 68 batters in 103 innings in Class A at Charleston of the South Atlantic League. He wasn’t throwing hard enough, wasn’t hitting his spots, and above all else, was trying too hard, letting his wrestler’s mentality affect his emotions and his pitching.

His career at a crossroads, Coke sought the help of a training guru named Adrian Crook. Self-billed as a “flexibility and movement consultant,” Crook had helped train athletes ranging from Olympic volleyball player Karch Kiraly to hockey stars Teemu Selanne, Joe Sakic, and Paul Kariya to MLB standouts like former Giants closer Robb Nen. Crook’s teaching was grounded in Shaolin kung fu. For Crook, the goal of Shaolin was to develop flexibility, balance, and core strength as the pillars for training athletes in any sport. By becoming more flexible, Crook believed athletes could recover from even the most intense workouts and dramatically lower their injury risk. In training baseball pitchers, the focus would be on dissecting every element of throwing mechanics, right down to what the fingers and the wrists do. Crook’s pitcher pupils would use weighted balls to exercise each part of the arm and hand, via what he called “ridiculously high reps.” Coke loved these ideas and was eager to start training with Crook immediately.

One problem: He was broke. Over the course of three-plus years, Coke had eaten through his signing bonus due to the rock-bottom wages that await every minor league player. The Yankees paid about $1,200 a month to players in Class A. That’s $1,200 a month before taxes, and only for the six months in which games are actually played.

That’s when life as a chimney repairman began. Coke made $8 to $10 an hour inhaling soot, muscling giant stoves, and doing anything else that was required of him. He’d finish work late on a Friday, then drive the 400 miles from Sonora to Crook’s home base in San Clemente, usually seven and sometimes eight hours by car. Then he’d find the cheapest fleabag hotel he could, train all weekend, and drive back Sunday night so he’d be ready to start the cycle over again Monday morning.

“He won me over,” recalled Crook. “He bought in, committed to everything I was teaching him. I believed in his work ethic. He really wanted it. He was a genuine good old boy.”

Promoted to high-A the next season, Coke’s numbers started ramping up. In 2006, he tossed 127 innings, lopping more than two runs off his ERA while improving his strikeout, walk, and home run rates. But as his prospects improved, money grew even tighter. The Yankees had a rule against players taking in-season jobs, preferring that they focus on baseball during the spring and summer. One day a team employee walked through the parking lot of the hotel where the coaches were staying for the season, on his way to drop some trash in the Dumpster. He stopped when he spotted someone he recognized. It was one of his pitchers rehabbing from some elbow issues and doing whatever he could to pay the bills as he tried to get back into shape to pitch at high-A Tampa. He was working as a janitor, wearing a jumpsuit with the hotel’s name on it. It was Phil Coke.

Promises were made to keep the incident a secret. Coke was merely doing everything he could to stay in the game while fighting a system intended to make the lives of plebes like him miserable. Teams pay players that poorly because they can, given the overwhelming demand for jobs in professional baseball, even at the low levels of the minor leagues. Aside from pure greed by the 30 major league clubs, there’s another stated goal to making players live under Spartan conditions.

“It’s part of the psychological effort to find out how mentally tough you really are,” Coke said. “Can you still perform when the rent’s due and you’re out of money? It’s a crazy schedule too, one you’ve never played before. You’re playing every day. You go from not knowing what a weekend is to not knowing what day it is at all. You’re in a town for two to four days, then off on these very, very long bus trips. Your choices are read a book, sleep your face off, or banter and talk with teammates. You figure out who the sleepers are and who are the ones who pull all-nighters. I was drawn to those people. But being away from family, friends, having a life, it’s really tough.”

How tough?

“Six people living in a two-bedroom apartment,” said Dirk Hayhurst, author of The Bullpen Gospels and Out of My League, two best-selling books that describe life coming up as a fringe prospect and the huge challenges such players face. “It’s just glorified poverty. Everybody gets into baseball thinking the validation of being a pro athlete will be currency more valuable than an AmEx card. Then when the bill comes it’s, ‘That’s great that you’re in the minors. How are you gonna pay for that?’ The season ends, and if you made no money in the draft you’re going right back under your parents’ roof. I just wanted money to eat, to buy groceries, let alone take out a girl. I’m trying to make it to the big leagues and I couldn’t even afford a gym membership. I remember going to speak at my old high school. Any questions? ‘Yeah, what do you drive?’ A rusted-out Honda Accord that I bought for $1,000 on eBay. You go to the minors, it’s supposed to be so fulfilling. But you have no money, you can’t do anything. It’s a hard reality check to realize how limited you are.”

For minor leaguers, being broke also means subsisting just about entirely on fast food, a curious way for teams to develop finely tuned athletes.1 For Coke, this became a legitimate problem, with the 6-foot-1 lefty ballooning to 245 pounds. Between the injuries, the mixed track record, and now the extra weight, it seemed he wouldn’t be long for the game.

Coke credits two incidents with turning his career around.

“My first month in Double-A was garbage,” he said. “I made five starts and had about a 30,000 ERA. After a while I thought, ‘Man, these guys are good. I’m terrible.’ I call my dad and said, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ Dad said, ‘Get on a plane, come home. If you’re gonna quit, quit now.’ My dad never once let me start something then let me quit if I was scared or overmatched. If you start something, you’ve gotta finish it. So I said, ‘Who the hell is this, this isn’t my dad.’ He said, ‘If you’re going to talk like this, then just quit, or quit being a shitheap.’ Then he gave me some great advice: ‘Just have fun. If it doesn’t work out, son, I have your back. But don’t be that guy who 10 years down the road quits because he couldn’t hack it for one month in this league.’ The light didn’t just go on, it went from 35-watt to 150-watt. The next game I struck out 10 in six and two-thirds.”

The other incident happened the day that he, his agent Larry O’Brien of Full Circle Sports Management, and Crook went to meet with knuckleballer and longtime pitching coach Charlie Hough at a baseball field in San Clemente. By now Coke’s velocity had started to spike, edging over 90 as a starter and touching 93-94 when he could air out his arm in short-relief work. Coke whizzed fastballs by Hough, then threw breaking balls.

“I thought, no one could possibly hit any of these pitches — he’s got a great arm!” Hough said. “This was someone who was repeating A-ball — struggling in A-ball — and his stuff [was] like a big league pitcher’s stuff. But he didn’t give me the impression that he thought he could be a big league pitcher. I thought he tried too hard.” Hough told him to relax a bit more. Don’t be afraid, he told the young lefty, to throw any pitch in any count. Focus on the positive, don’t think about the negative. Charlie Hough had never met Doug Coke, but their messages were virtually identical: Have fun, and don’t overthink it.

Coke’s career took off from there. He made his major league debut with the Yankees on September 1, 2008, pitching against the Tigers. He’d been bounced back and forth between starting and relieving, and would do the same later in his career. But he handled the transitions reasonably well, developing into a three-pitch pitcher as a starter, while mostly shelving his changeup when pitching in relief. What he didn’t handle as well, at least at first, was the three-team trade that sent him and Austin Jackson (along with Max Scherzer and Daniel Schlereth) to the Tigers, with Curtis Granderson, Ian Kennedy, and Edwin Jackson also changing teams. He eventually came to accept the business aspect of the trade and appreciate the Tigers’ interest in him. Still, after Detroit GM Dave Dombrowski introduced himself by phone, he asked Coke how he was feeling about the deal. “I want to kick the crap out of the Yankees,” the new Tiger snarled.

He got his first shot at high-profile revenge during the 2011 ALDS, but gave up three runs in one inning to the Yankees. That changed during this year’s ALCS. Coke tossed 5⅔ innings all told in the series, allowing no runs, no walks, and just three hits, while striking out four. And when faced with his biggest moment of the series, Coke seized on the lessons imparted to him. When Tigers catcher Alex Avila put down the sign for a curveball on that 3-2 count to Ibanez, Coke didn’t hesitate.

“I wasn’t thinking. I just shook my head yes and threw it. What’s the worst that can happen?”

Apparently when you’ve rolled around in ashes, jumped in Dumpsters, and dodged squirrel carcasses for a living, you do gain a little perspective.

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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