Coste Is Clear for RedHawks to Make Championship Run
American Association Daily provides insights and features on the American Association of Professional Baseball League, as well as player and coaching profiles and transactions going on with teams around the league. In today’s edition, Robert Pannier features Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks interim Manager Chris Coste as he looks to guide the team to their first championship since 2010.
Chris Coste Builds a Legacy as a Player
There are few stories that sports fans enjoy more than the underdog. The circumstance where the odds seem too great. Where the player overcomes those odds, the challenges, and the naysayers to reach the highest levels of their sport.
In baseball, it is players like Jim Morris, who retired from the game in 1988 and was working as a high school teacher before returning to the diamond after more than a decade away. In a single season, the left-hander moved from AA-Orlando to the Major Leagues, where he appeared in 16 games for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
In hockey, it’s Scott Foster, who was playing in a rec league when he was called upon to go between the pipes for the Chicago Blackhawks as their emergency goaltender when both their netminders were hurt. Foster, who was 36 at the time, hadn’t played in a professional game in 12 years, but stopped all seven shots by the Winnipeg Jets to preserve his team’s victory. These are the kinds of stories that make sports great.
This is the story of Chris Coste, who spent four years with the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks before joining an affiliate team at age 27. He then spent six seasons working his way up through the ranks before finally reaching the majors with the Philadelphia Phillies at 34-years-old, and would help the team to win a world championship a year later.
After living out one of the most improbable stories in baseball history, Chris Coste now finds himself back in Fargo-Moorhead, this time as the team’s interim manager as he hopes to lead the RedHawks to their first championship since the 2010 season. In doing so, he looks to add another chapter to an already impressive legacy.
Taking the Helm with High Expectations
The 2020 American Association season gets underway with a bit of a dark cloud hanging over it. The Covid-19 pandemic has shutdown the vast majority of the sports world, and the league will be one of the first professional sports leagues to try to put on a season, albeit a shortened one with half of its teams spending the season in the locker room.
It’s not an ideal situation, but that has not removed the expectations of the RedHawks management. This is a team celebrating their 25-year in existence, and they have had a lot of success over the years. Fargo-Moorhead has reached the playoffs 17 teams in their history, winning five championships.
There were high expectations on last year’s team and they delivered, going 63-37, the second best record in the league. The team was just three innings from advancing to the championship series when things quickly went off the rails, as the team was swept in the final three games by the St. Paul Saints, who went onto win the American Association title.
Winning is far more than an expectation in Fargo-Moorhead. It is part of the RedHawks DNA, so it was not surprising that when the team decided to go in another direction for the 2020 season that Chris Coste became the choice to manage the team.
Despite the shortened season and the brief spring training, the team still expects to win. Some would crumble under the pressure, but not Chris Coste.
“I embrace expectations. For me, (Former RedHawks Manager) Doug Simunic is still the benchmark. Doug is still a part of my life and had a huge impact on my career. So, it’s not so much that I’m in his shadow as trying to represent the RedHawks the way that he and Jeff Bittiger represented it beginning in 1996. So, for me it’s less of a pressure or expectations and more of trying to keep the flame lit that they lit so long ago.”
A Legacy Already Established
Chris Coste is one of the biggest success stories that independent baseball has ever produced. After a year in Brandon (Prairie League) and a season in Brainerd (North Central League), he joined the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks in the old Northern League.
Chris joined the team as an infielder, but the RedHawks needed a catcher, and he was the first to raise his hand. Simunic reluctantly handed him the opportunity, but soon he had won over his manager, making 48 starts behind the plate. The next three seasons he was the team’s everyday catcher, hitting well over .300 in each of those seasons while playing superbly behind the plate.
At the end of the 1999 season, Chris finally got noticed. His contract was purchased by the Cleveland Indians, and he was sent to the team’s AA-Akron club. By year’s end, he was at AAA-Buffalo and it looked like he was on the fast track to the Majors. However, it was soon like walking through cement.
In 2001, he spent much of the year in Buffalo and remained there for 2002. He did everything to earn a shot, but did not get it in Cleveland, so he moved to the Boston Red Sox organization the next year. For the next two seasons, he spent much of the time at AAA-Pawtucket.
A good portion of the 2003 season was wiped out by injury, and this led to him moving to the Milwaukee Brewers in 2004 where he was assigned to AAA-Indianapolis. Chris was just one step from the Major Leagues, but that was an elusive step, especially for a catcher who was 31-years-old at the end of the 2004 season.
A year later, Chris moved to the Philadelphia Phillies and things changed immediately. He began the 2006 season at AAA- Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, but would reach the big club where he became a regular in the lineup, appearing in 65 games while hitting .328.
In 2007, Chris split time between AA-Reading, AAA-Ottawa, and Philadelphia but, in 2008, he was in the Majors to stay. At 35-years-old, he was finally an everyday Major League catcher, appearing in 98 games. That year he helped the team win the World Series.
The Next Step in the Process
His experience making it to the Majors made it seem only natural that he would become a coach or manager one day. Even Chris recognized that he had the right baseball IQ for the job, but his time in the Majors tainted that thought a bit.
“I would say my entire minor league or professional career I actually knew I was going to get into coaching and then specifically managing at some point. In fact, when I was in the minor leagues and didn’t think I was going to make the major leagues, one of the things that kept my markings right was thinking that maybe I had a better future as a manager. I knew coaching was going to be part of it but what I wanted to do at some point was be a Major League manager. Then, oddly enough, once I made the Major Leagues, I realized maybe I didn’t want to be a Major League manager. I’d rather be a Major League bench coach because it’s a much easier job,” he explained with a laugh.
The doubts did not last long. In 2011, Chris returned to his alma mater, Concordia-Moorhead (MN), to serve as an assist coach for the Cobbers. By 2014 he was the team’s head coach. In his six seasons at the helm, he has led the team to a 108-92 mark, including 53-45 in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC).
In 2018, Chris took on an additional job, becoming the RedHawks bench coach under first year manager Michael Schlact. It was the perfect opportunity to pursue his dream, but it also provided a new passion he was not expecting when he took the job.
“A couple of years ago when I started coaching with the RedHawks, I didn’t know how it was going to go, but I knew it was something I had to do for at least one year just to see how it would go. When I did it, that first year in 2018, I fell in love with independent ball again and, more importantly, with the Red Hawks again. I knew at that time it was something that I wanted to be a part of my life along with college baseball.”
This would seem a lot to take on – the head coach of a college baseball team and the manager of a professional club – but Chris is seeing how this is actually making him a better leader.
“I love college baseball. I’m not so sure it loves me back at the same level but I do, in fact, love it. More importantly, each position – my position as head coach in college and now being with the RedHawks – both situations make me better at the other. You know, there’s certain things that I get out of being a college coach that I can’t get from the RedHawks and there’s things that I get out of the RedHawks in professional baseball that I can’t get out of college baseball. They kind of complete me oddly enough to say but, more importantly, they each make me better at the other position.”
Having to Prove Himself Once Again
No doubt that Chris Coste has done everything it takes to prove himself as a player and coach, but this is the pros. He was named as the RedHawks manager just two weeks before the season was to get underway and didn’t have much time to prepare himself for this season, but that doesn’t matter. He is expected to make a winner of this team, and that has led the new Skipper to lean on the many great managers he has been blessed to be associated with.
“I could give you all kinds of amazing names, you know. Charlie Manuel comes to mind. You know, you look Doug Simunic back in the day along with Jeff Bittiger as a pitching coach in independent ball. But really the two managers that probably I wrote notes down or filtered things in my brain to make sure that I remembered, if I ever became manager, are Eric Wedge and Gene Lamont. I had Eric Wedge for parts of three years, my first three years after I got signed out of the Northern league back in 2000 to 2002. When I was in AAA with the Phillies, my manager was Gene Lamont and he was he was that guy that I was like, ‘Boy, if I ever manage, I’m going to use this phrase and that phrase.’ I have been blessed to have been around incredible men my entire adult life. For the most part, I’ve been around some of the best people and leaders the baseball world has to offer. It’s a gift.”
Even with all that great knowledge, this is going to be an odd season to say the least. This is not a 100-game campaign where he can afford to let his feet get wet before diving in. A bad 10 days could virtually eliminate a team from playoff contention, and Chris understands that he has to be prepared to adapt and to adapt quickly.
“I think any good manager and coaching staff will always be able to adapt to whatever scenario there is. When you’re in a regular season, you’re dealing with unknowns of rain delays, rain outs, injuries. A worldwide pandemic is a lot of it different. We’ve had a lot of discussions on how we might work thing, how to use our No. 1 and No. 5 starters. How to handle guys who are struggling. So, you have to be prepared to get creative with more things.”
It is a short season, but there are some opportunities to take advantage of the schedule, and the RedHawks Manager is planning accordingly.
“In some ways this schedule allows for a little bit easier bullpen or the way you run your pitching staff. Not easy, but it makes it a little bit easier because of every Monday off. If you look at our past schedules, and most minor league schedules, there’s times where you’re playing 20 to 23 days in a row. We enter the season knowing going in that we’re basically having six games on, one day off. It makes it a little bit easier to plan ahead. You can’t plan for everything, but it’s almost easier to plan for it. I’m going to say it again – not easy, just easier than maybe what it had been last year.”
Ready to Win!
When your team enters the 2020 season as one of two that made the playoffs last season, you have to feel pretty good about your chances. Even Chris Coste acknowledges that, pointing out that “On paper, we have a an incredibly good roster, as good a roster as you could expect to put together.”
However, there are a lot of uncertainties to 2020, starting with the level of preparation players had prior to coming to Spring Training. Not many facilities were open to train, but the RedHawks Skipper is thrilled by the fact that his guys came ready to play.
“I was incredibly, incredibly pleasantly surprised but, more so, pleased with when I called our guys, how far into their preparation they are, whether it’s a pitcher all ready, they’re ready to compete, they don’t need another two weeks to ramp it up. Hitters, the amount of times I would call a hitter a week ago, 10 days ago, and they were in the middle of batting practice. You could hear the wood hitting the ball in the background. Our guys are way ahead of what we thought they would be as far as preparation. It was incredible.”
There is no doubt that it is incredible. The two teams that are likely to make the playoffs are the ones who players avoid contracting Covid-19 and who came to camp ready to go. There is not much Chris can do about the former, and he is thrilled at the latter. Now it is time to put that all together on the field.
Ten weeks from now we will know if Chris Coste has one more story to add to an already impressive legacy. He is already a former Major Leaguer, a Northern League champion, and a World Series champion. He has proven to be a winner everywhere he has gone. That is why it would not be surprising to see American Association champion added to the RedHawks Manager’s resume by season’s end.
It may not be smooth sailing this season with the pandemic in the back of everyone’s minds. However, the Coste looks pretty clear to bring home that title to Fargo-Moorhead.
By Robert Pannier