Coke jumps from chimneys to clubhouse
Eight of his New York Yankees teammates were paid $13 million or more this season. Another 13 Yankees were paid at least $1 million.
The five biggest contracts in the history of the game have gone to Yankees, two of those deals to A-Rod.
You run with this crowd, you’re expected to be swimming in cash.
Not sweeping chimneys. Or still bunking at your parents’.
“People think because I play baseball, I have a lot of money,” said Phil Coke(notes), the Yankees’ rookie left-hander who spent one offseason working as a chimney sweep in his hometown of Sonora, Calif.
He also replaced 500-pound stoves, installed in-ground fiberglass pools and set up hot tubs, all part of the job he got through a friend of his dad, Doug, an ex-Marine who worked at the medium-security prison in town after transferring from Soledad.
Lugging those stoves around the warehouse floor on a dolly posed more danger than sweeping chimneys, Coke said, though when he’d spend the day in the chimney, it was inevitable that he would bring his work home with him.
“The hardest part was getting the soot off of you,” he said. “You’re getting pretty dirty, but I grew up messin’ around in the mud anyway, so it wasn’t a big deal.
“But you smelled really funny. Hard to get it all off your skin.”
Must have made him quite the catch on weekends.
“You smelled like … fire,” Coke said.
It’s been three years since Coke last swept a chimney, he said, but he still remembers how to do it. When he goes home this winter he’ll find something to do, though for the moment he’s occupied with the World Series, and it’s one in which he may play a prominent role, given that the Phillies are loaded with left-handed sluggers and his assigned task is to find a way to get them out.
Coke is paid much better for that work than the stuff he does in Sonora, but his $403,300 salary is just above the big-league minimum and 1/80th of what A-Rod is paid. And what people forget is that this is his first taste of big-league cash after six years in the minors, and even that wasn’t guaranteed last winter, when Yankees GM Brian Cashman gave him a split contract, which means it paid him at one level in the big leagues and much less ($67,000) if he was sent to the minors.
The common perception of the Yankees is that the only place in New York where you’d find more millionaires is on Wall Street, which may be true. But there’s a handful of Yankees – outfielder Brett Gardner(notes); relievers Phil Hughes(notes), Alfredo Aceves(notes) and Joba Chamberlain(notes); and catcher Francisco Cervelli(notes) – who hardly qualify as high-rollers, even when many assume they do.
And some of them, like Coke, who was a high-school freshman when he got his first job, helping to clear fallen trees and throwing brush into a wood chipper, feels as comfortable among his buddies with regular jobs back home as he does in the Yankee clubhouse.
“Here’s the thing,” he said, “I’m a normal person. I really am a normal person. I don’t know any other way to be than a small-town, backwoods kind of guy. I mean, where I live, everybody pretty much knows everybody, neighbors help out neighbors. That’s pretty much how I grew up. It’s kind of like that movie idea they put out there, that’s where I came from.”
Home is almost three hours east of San Francisco, close enough to have felt tremors when an earthquake struck the big town during Game 3 of the 1989 World Series. Coke was 7 then, with dreams of becoming the next Will Clark, the first baseman of the Giants, his favorite team.
He was 3, the middle child among three boys, when he announced to Doug Coke, his dad, that one day he would play in the big leagues. Doug gave him a funny look, but they went out and bought him his first baseball glove the same day.
He played ball and wrestled in high school. “I was a weird-bodied guy on the wrestling mat,” he said. “Long, big legs and long old gorilla arms that I used to get hold of somebody and try to put him on his back.”
The baseball scouts didn’t wear out a path to Doug and Pamela Coke’s front door. Phil Coke was drafted in the 49th round out of high school, but he went to San Joaquin Delta Junior College instead. That’s where he was a couple years later when the Yankees drafted him in the 26th round in 2002.
Five years in pro ball, he was still in Class A, grateful that he could still find work back home after the season. Even after being promoted at the start of the 2008 season to Double-A Trenton, he entertained thoughts of quitting, calling his dad and saying he wasn’t sure he was good enough to make it.
Looks to me like you’re not having any fun, Doug Coke told his son. Try to have some fun and don’t worry as much.
“The part I left out,” the son said Wednesday, “is that he told me, ‘If that’s how you feel, pack your bags and come on home.’ I wasn’t going to do that.”
That summer, the Yankees almost traded him to Pittsburgh as part of the deal in which they acquired outfielder Xavier Nady(notes) and reliever Damaso Marte(notes). They changed their mind and stuck him in the bullpen. That’s when something clicked. Maybe it was a tighter slider to go along with his fastball, sinker and changeup. Maybe it was because he remembered again how much fun this was, and when that happened, he got more people out and the confidence bloomed anew.
All Phil Coke knows is that by last September, he was in the big leagues and didn’t allow a run in his first 10 appearances.
“The organization stuck with me all those years,” he said, “and now I was on my way. I don’t know, man. It was weird, but I’m glad I’m here.”
A-Rod bought him two suits. He did the same for all the rookies. “Pretty cool,” Coke said.
Even now, Coke said, when he goes out to dinner with more well-heeled teammates, someone else usually picks up the tab.
“They do it secretly, too,” he said. “I still don’t know who bought me dinner the last time we were in Seattle.”
His first full season of big league paychecks doesn’t mean he’s moved into a penthouse suite on the Upper East Side. Coke rents a furnished apartment in New Jersey, one that runs him about $2,500 a month.
“When my mom and dad come and see me, I try to take care of them as much as I can,” said Coke, whose father had to retire because of a heart condition, “because they’ve done nothing but take care of me.”
This offseason, when Coke returns to Sonora, he won’t be living at home. He’s building a house of his own. “Right next door,” he said, “to my mom and dad.”
But first, there is a World Series to be played. Tuesday afternoon, at the Yankee Stadium media session, Coke was peppered with questions about having to face the likes of Ryan Howard(notes) and Chase Utley(notes) and Raul Ibanez(notes), the sluggers he may well be summoned to encounter with a game on the line.
“They’re really good hitters, man, all of ‘em, the whole lineup,” he said. “They’re going to bring out the best I got obviously, and I got to hope and pray that all my good stuff will be there when I need it.”
Still, as jobs go, you don’t have to wash off the soot after this one.
“It’s just been a season of opportunities,” he said. “I’ve done the best job I could of not blowing the opportunities handed to me.
“I’m just excited for being here. What more can I say? I’m just glad to be here.”