Chris Coste authors improbable story

Chris Coste authors improbable story

Chris Coste's baseball odyssey began in the humblest of Minor League outposts, the Independent Northern League's Fargo-Moorhead Redhawks, where he spent the first four years of his professional career.

The Redhawks are not exactly a hotbed of prospects, but that hardly disturbed Coste, whose high school didn't have a varsity team, who had no college scholarship offers and who wound up playing at Division III Concordia College (Minn.). The Minnesota Intercollegiate Baseball Conference hadn't produced a Major League player in 40 years. And it took a while for Coste to end that record.

For Coste, beginning an 11-year Minor League apprenticeship at Fargo-Moorhead was just right, especially since it eventually led him to the Philadelphia Phillies.

"I was never going to walk away from baseball," Coste said. "I was going to play as long as I could. I figured the longer I played, the better manager I would become some day."

So Coste became a Minor League lifer, riding the buses from one town to the next, playing winter ball in the Caribbean, chasing the dream that one day some big league team would see something in him and give him a chance. And if not, well, he was soaking up baseball knowledge and seeing America.

"Some of the places I played, you'd be surprised how nice they were," he said. "It felt like the Major Leagues to me."

After four years of touring the Northern League whistle stops, Coste hooked on with Pittsburgh, then Cleveland, then Boston and then Milwaukee before the Phillies took a chance on him. By then, he was 32, far removed from "young prospect" status.

There had been some close calls. In 2002, he led the International League in hitting for most of a season and seemed like a cinch to be a September callup by the Indians. Then he broke his hand on the last day of the IL season. A year later, he was the last cut in spring training by the Red Sox. Then, in 2006, he seemed a cinch to make the Phillies after hitting .463 in spring training. But a last-minute trade squeezed him out of his roster spot and he got cut again.

Then came the break.

In May, Alex Gonzalez, a backup infielder, a right-handed bat off the bench, decided he had enough of baseball and announced his retirement. Coste got the call. He would be the 25th man, rescued at last from a lifetime in the minors.

"I had waited 10 years," he said. "I wanted to get one day. Then, if you get that one day, you want 10 years. You're never satisfied. I don't ever want to go down again."

Coste struggled at the start, hitless in his first 13 major league at-bats -- not the best beginning. Then, nearly a month after he arrived, Coste got his first hit, a single up the middle that drove in a run against Tampa Bay. He stood at first base clapping his hands like a Little Leaguer.

That first hit touched off a flurry of them. There were home runs against Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, and, when the year was over, the career Minor Leaguer had batted .328 in a feel-good summer.

There were brief pit stops at Triple-A and even Double-A last season, but Coste returned and was behind the plate when Brett Myers threw the pitch that clinched the NL East title for the Phillies. He's no longer the 25th man, and those Minor League seasons are in his rear view mirror.

"It's been three years now," he said. "It's hard to remember the years before. This is becoming normal."

Luckily for Coste, he wrote it all down. The memories live on in an autobiography that was released this spring -- The 33-Year-Old Rookie: How I Finally Made it to the Big Leagues After Eleven Years in the Minors.

Coste still wants to manage one day, and, if he is as persistent about that dream as he was getting to the Majors, he will probably accomplish that goal, too. He just hopes it doesn't take as long.

Hal Bock is a freelance writer based in New York.