Timely advice from Dad key for Coke
Stuck in a rut, a pep talk from his father led lefty to Majors
Tigers left-handed reliever Phil Coke might not have become a Major Leaguer had he listened to his father and taken him at his word.
It was 2008, and after five years Coke finally had made it out of Class-A ball. He was in the Yankees' Minor League system then and was a starter. Not a particularly good one, he said.
"When I got to Double-A Trenton, the first month I was carrying a ridiculously high ERA," Coke said. "I'd go out there, last maybe four innings. I called my dad, told him I wasn't sure I was cut out for it, wasn't having any fun. And my stuff wasn't very good. 'These guys are making me look real bad. I'm not helping myself at all.'"
Coke, 30, recalled the conversation with his father, Doug, then a prison guard in northern California.
"My dad said, 'Well then, quit. Get on a plane and come home.' My dad has never allowed me to quit anything and he's telling me, 'Quit. Be that guy.' I looked at the phone like you've got to be kidding."
"Dad, I didn't say I want to quit."
"Good. I didn't raise you to do that. Why don't you do yourself and me a favor? Suck it up and go out there and have fun and see what happens."
In his next start, Coke struck out 11 Portland Sea Dogs in seven innings for his first win with the Thunder.
"And it was fun. It was a blast," he said.
"I called my dad. He said, 'That's what I'm talking about. That's my kid. Not the guy I was talking to yesterday. This is my son.'"
Coming out of Sonora High in La Habra, Calif., 30 miles south of Los Angeles, Coke was drafted in the 49th round (No. 1,450) by the Marlins in 2001, but went instead to San Joaquin Delta Junior College in Stockton, Calif. The next year, Yankees area scout Tim McIntosh called him.
"At first I thought it was a prank," Coke said. "He said, 'We want to draft you,' and I said, 'OK, buddy, whatever. Gimme a break.'"
They drafted him in the 26th round (No. 786).
"I realized, 'Omigod, it's the Yankees!' It kind of brought me to tears a little bit because it was so surreal."
He began his trek through Class-A in 2003 before making it to Trenton. After 20 starts with the Thunder, he was 9-4 with a 2.51 ERA. He was promoted to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and shifted to the bullpen. The Yankees called him up on Sept. 1, 2008, and he made his big league debut that day in relief at Detroit.
On Sept. 13, Coke made his Yankee Stadium debut.
"I absolutely had the chills when I walked in there," Coke said. "I was like a kid in the candy store for the whole 28 days I was in the big leagues (that year)."
After 2009, he was traded to the Tigers, part of a three-team deal that also sent outfielders Austin Jackson to the Tigers and Curtis Granderson to the Yankees. Detroit made him a starter in 2011, an experiment that ended after June 29 with him at 1-8 with a 4.91 ERA. It was back to the bullpen.
Coke now heads to the mound either to pitch a couple of innings or to face a left-handed batter. He says he'd pitch in every game if he could.
"I do everything I can mentally and physically to make sure I'm ready to go every day," he said. "When the phone rings. I'm prepared for it to be me."
Bruce Lowitt is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Fla.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.