Darnell Coles, shown here in spring training with the Diamondbacks in 1998, had his best season in Detroit in 1986, when he had 20 homers and 86 RBIs. (Jeff Carlick / Getty Images)
Detroit — It’s the name-game response every time.
Who is Darnell Coles?
He’s the Tiger who once threw a ball out of Tiger Stadium, of course.
Now, 27 years later, Coles is back with the team as its assistant hitting coach.
Maturity has long since replaced the youthful impulsiveness that caused Coles to fling the ball, in frustration, over the roof near third.
He has turned to leadership roles since his playing career ended. He has been a minor league manager. He has also been a minor league coach.
A reputation for enthusiasm and dedication prompted new manager Brad Ausmus to consider him for his coaching staff, then to hire him.
The famous heave that defined Coles as a Tiger in 1987 certainly won’t define him as a coach.
But it still buzzes around him like a fly he’s never been able to swat. It was asked about during the Tigers’ caravan last week, as Coles knew it would be.
He laughed but simultaneously grimaced when he heard the question, wishing it would go away, though he’s now equipped with the perspective to answer it.
“To me, it wasn’t a big deal at the time,” he said. “It was a way to direct some of my energy.
“You live, learn and move on.”
Friendly as a player, Coles is still friendly as a coach
If you don’t remember him, here’s a recap of his first two times around with the Tigers.
That’s right, two.
He was their starting third baseman in 1986 and had a good year with 86 runs batted in. Fans liked him, sensing he might be around for several seasons.
But Coles slumped badly out of the gate in 1987, and had a miserable half-season before the Tigers shipped him to Pittsburgh — a reversal so precipitous that fans were confused by it.
Coles went from being prominently productive in his first year as a Tiger to being prominently puzzling in his second. But he didn’t throw the ball over the roof to get attention. He threw it because frustration got the better of him.
It occurred between innings of a game against the Angels on May 11. Coles had just taken an infield toss from Alan Trammell, but instead of tossing the ball to another player, or rolling it to the dugout, he turned toward the third-base stands and gave the ball a mighty heave.
It happened so fast, not everyone saw it. But enough did for it to become one of those “Did you see what I just saw?” moments.
An inning later, manager Sparky Anderson removed Coles from the game.
Let’s interject this right now: Coles is not a weird person, nor was he a weird player. He was a youngster trying in vain to cope with a slump, disappointed his previously bright future with the Tigers was growing dim.
He says now there was someone at the back of the upper deck to whom he was trying to throw the ball, but the memory doesn’t seem to be a vivid one.
And frankly, Coles wishes all memory of it would vanish, because he’s grown far beyond the immaturity of the moment.
Traded again to the Tigers in 1990, Coles didn’t earn a return the following season, mostly because he had only four RBIs in 108 at-bats and hit just .204
He went on to play for five more teams before his playing career ended in 1997.
Now 51, he has been a promising minor league manager who would have managed the Milwaukee Brewers’ Triple A Nashville team this season if he hadn’t accepted the Tigers’ offer.
So it’s not as if Coles’ future was defined by the Tiger Stadium incident.
Just his time as a Tiger was.
Overcoming the immaturity that caused it, though, helped to shape him. By the time he retired, Coles had become a serious student of the game.
“In my last four or five years of playing,” he said, “I paid a lot of attention to the little details of the game, things like optimal positioning and the intricacies of hitting.
“When your career begins to wind down, you start to think about which way you want to go, and that’s when I thought for the first time that coaching would be a viable option.
“I also picked up a lot from paying attention to what Sparky Anderson paid attention to.
“Sparky has always been a big part of the way I go about my business. My thought is that I’m much better now at understanding the game.”
And understanding the minds of young players.
“That’s the best part of coaching and managing,” Coles said, “the chance to understand young players, along with the teachable moments you get to instruct them based on what you yourself went through.”
Such as slumps you can’t give in to.
Coles was hitting .133 and had made nine errors at third by mid-May of 1987.
But if Coles can now tell a young player never to let frustration get the better of him, it’s because it once got the better of him.