It was a long and winding road for utility player Darnell Coles, who played 17 Major League Baseball (MLB) seasons for eight different teams.
The Californian quickly climbed the ranks of Seattle’s minor-league system after the Mariners made him the sixth overall pick in the 1980 amateur entry draft. Coles had already played in Bellingham, Wausau, Bakersfield, Chattanooga, Salt Lake City and Seattle by the time he was sent to Calgary to play for the city’s new Triple-A franchise in the Pacific Coast League.
That 1985 Cannons team, Coles recalled, was loaded with talent. The infielder used his time in Alberta to refine his game and help turn himself into an everyday MLB player. Over the course of 31 games in Calgary, Coles batted .320 with four home runs, 16 runs and 24 RBI.
The major leagues beckoned after that, including a World Series title with the Toronto Blue Jays in 1993. Following his final MLB appearance as a member of the Colorado Rockies on May 22nd, 1997, Coles played briefly in Japan with the Hanshin Tigers.
But Coles soon found other reasons to go to a baseball diamond. He took on gigs as an ESPN analyst and a minor-league manager. In 2015, the Milwaukee Brewers hired him on as their hitting coach, a role he fulfilled for four seasons before moving into the same job with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2019.
We caught up with Coles recently to discuss his baseball journey. Here’s what he had to say on Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast.
Q: Take us back to that time, 1985, when you’re challenging for a position with the Seattle Mariners and you end up getting sent back down to Triple-A. What went through your mind when you were sent to Calgary?
A: My first thought was I’ve got to buy as much cold weather gear that I possibly could think of, because I figured obviously we won’t be playing indoors, we’d be outdoors and I figured it’d be pretty cold so I made sure I invested in the right amount of extra clothing to get me through the first part of the season.
Q: Outside of the weather, what expectations did you have? This was a brand new organization that we’re talking about.
A: I think that it’s just another opportunity to figure out how to get back to the big leagues. I used it as an opportunity for me to get better and try and understand getting to Triple-A, getting my wife there and situated, making sure that you’re in the right frame of mind at the start of the season, because with the Mariners there was a chance that you could get called up at any point in time.
So, I was just preparing myself to go down, play well and get back to the big leagues as quick as I possibly could.
Q: The Cannons started off pretty well that season. I think you were 6-2 to start, and that was all on the road. You end up heading home and you’re in the grasp of Old Man Winter. What was it like from a player’s perspective to sit there and twiddle your thumbs, waiting for that opening day at the ballpark in Calgary?
A: One, you’re excited because it’s a new place that you haven’t been to. Two, you don’t know, as far as how big of a crowd, what you’re going to get. You figured you’d get bigger crowds later in the summer, but early in the season when it’s freezing out you don’t know what kind of crowd we’re going to get. But I think we had pretty good crowds.
I know that, having played in Toronto, Canadians love their baseball. I know that. We had a wonderful time there, me and my wife. The people of Calgary were absolutely fantastic. I wasn’t there long, but I was there long enough to know that Calgary was a great place for baseball and I’m just happy I got an opportunity to play there.
Q: A snow storm ended up postponing the home opener for the franchise. Did you take part in any of the snowball fights that happened when that first game was supposed to take place?
A: I think I did. I would guess that I did. I’m sure I fired one or two at Danny Tartabull for some unknown reason, but I think in the big picture we all had a great time. It was a wonderful place to play and there were some great players there. Danny Tartabull was there, Edgar Martinez was there, Harold Reynolds … as you know, Edgar is a Hall of Famer, so just to be a part of that and knowing some of those guys … Danny Tartabull quite possibly had one of the best Triple-A seasons anybody’s ever had.
I enjoyed being there and playing with a group of guys that, a lot of those guys played in the big leagues, so it was a fun team to play with.
Q: Any particular memories or stories about teammates or road trips or anything that really stands out from your time here?
A: I think anytime you’re going through customs, it can be a little bit of fun, especially when it’s cold and you’re trying to get through as quick as you can, and you have one or two guys who pop off from the back and then it slows the line down. For the most part, I think that we all enjoyed our time there.
Obviously, Danny having hit 43 home runs and drove in over 100 runs was the big ticket item for that first year. You had a lot of guys there who played in the big leagues. Ricky Nelson, Johnny Moses, Dave Valle, Paul Serna, to name a few, so there were a whole lot of guys that were able to go there and play well and eventually make their way to the big leagues.
Q: When you look back on that time, it’s always fun to talk about the players, but what comes to mind when I mention owner Russ Parker?
A: Russ Parker … wow, that is a blast from the past. I think he was a guy who always made sure that we got everything that we needed. He was always around, he was easily accessible, he made sure that all the families were taken care of. If you were staying at an apartment, he made sure that he sent people over to make sure that we were staying in a good spot and if we weren’t he’d figure out a way to get us to another spot.
Team travel was great. We always had good meals in the clubhouse, so I’ve got nothing but the utmost respect for him.
Q: What did you learn from your experiences in Calgary, as you were making your way to the major leagues? What did you take away from that time, both as a player and on a personal level?
A: Having played there and understanding the way the game is played, it was a great time. I learned a lot from the older players. Jamie Allen was there, Al Chambers was there. I got an opportunity to play with Jack Perconte. He and Harold were battling over who the second baseman was going to be, so if Harold wasn’t there, Jack was there. They went back and forth, and sometimes me and Harold went back and forth … it was an opportunity to reflect on what kind of player I wanted to be and figure out ways to be in the big leagues doing it.
Putting in extra work and staying motivated and keep pushing yourself to ultimately get to the big leagues and stay there. There’s a lot of guys that bounce up and down and I was one of those guys for a little bit of time, but I finally got a chance to figure it out. I figured out a way to eat right and make sure that you’re lifting in the right way, so that you stay on the field and injuries aren’t a part of the program, so that you allow yourself to stay on the field for the long term.
Q: Would Darnell Coles from 1985 ever have believed that he would’ve stayed in baseball as a coach after his playing career was over?
A: In reality, yeah, I thought that I would coach at some point in time but I was thinking that I’d probably coach my kids through high school and then eventually be a high school coach, which I did and all that.
Getting back into the game coaching wise, I thought there might be a chance, depending on what I was doing later in life, whether me and my wife and kids had moved to a different spot and we were just relaxing on the beach or something like that, or you end up having kids and grandkids and you’re so immersed in watching them grow up and kind of go their separate ways and what they’re doing in life.
Baseball has been a thing that I’ve had and done my whole life and I’m just happy to be a part of it and be able to give back.
Q: How much do you lean on that past experience, whether it was in Calgary or anywhere else in your travels, to coach your players along?
A: I was a player who played every day, I was a player who platooned, I was a player who came off the bench, I played on a world championship team in Toronto and with multiple playoff teams that ended up losing in the playoffs. I had to work my way up from the lower minor leagues all the way to the big leagues, so there’s some continuity in that I’ve done a lot of things when it comes to baseball, but at this stage I’m still learning things.
You’re always learning to be able to give back to the game and younger players. In a lot of instances, when I was playing, you thought that a lot of things should be given to you and not have to work for them. Early on I had to figure that out and that’s my message to younger players now is that nothing is given to you. Once you’re done and you get paid and that first year is over with, now you’re just another player who is in the system with a bunch of talented guys who are trying to make their way to the big leagues, so I want to make sure that young players understand that this is not an easy game to play. Hitting is the hardest thing to do in the game of baseball, but you’ve got to make sure that you do everything under the sun to give everything you’ve got, because your career goes quick.
Q: Final question for you Darnell, what does the game of baseball mean to you?
A: The game of baseball has given me everything that I have in life. I found my wife – and we got married and we’ve been married 37 years – through baseball.
I had a pretty darned good career, with an exclamation point on winning a world championship in 1993 with the Toronto Blue Jays. I just feel like now is the perfect time – in this game, especially as you get older – to reflect on your career, your coaching career, your family, your friends that allow you to understand that every day is a gift and I want to make sure that every day that I’m alive that I give back to the game of baseball everything that it’s given to me.