Change of plans
Coste finds way home to Con.-Moorhead after MLB days
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Other than the Oakley sunglasses, nothing about Chris Coste's clothing or demeanor screamed "former big-leaguer." Not the maroon hoodie with the logo of Concordia-Moorhead, where he coaches baseball. And certainly not the equipment bag he carried back to the team bus.
But in the seventh inning of a recent road game against Hamline, Coste, the former Phillies backup catcher and Concordia's first-year head coach, flashed a little major-league savvy.
Before the game, Coste stressed a patient approach against Hamline lefthander Matt Connell, who walked six in his previous start. With Concordia trailing 6-0, Coste reminded his hitters to take a strike.
Word spread through the dugout. Leadoff batter Tim Carlson walked. So did the next hitter, Jordan Domine. That triggered a seven-run rally, a 7-6 victory and a split of an afternoon doubleheader.
"He communicates with us well," said Domine, a junior catcher. "In the game, if he sees an adjustment we need to make, he's quick to get on us about that. It's awesome to have a World Series catcher help us out."
Returning to his alma mater isn't what Coste, the popular backup catcher for the 2008 world champion Phillies, anticipated for his post-baseball career. He aspired to be a major-league manager, even if it meant repeating the 11-year sojourn through independent and affiliated ball that brought him to Philadelphia as a 33-year-old rookie in 2006.
"When I was in the minor leagues for all those years, whether it was with the Phillies or the Red Sox or the Indians or whoever, my plan when I retired was to be a manager," said Coste, who wrote two books about his experiences. "I would have loved to manage the Phillies. When I was with the Phillies, I told a lot of people that was my goal."
But goals change.
Coste, 42, said he loves coaching at Concordia, a college with about 2,400 students in Moorhead, Minnesota, across the Red River from his hometown of Fargo, North Dakota. Settled with his wife and two daughters, Coste said he has no desire to leave the area. Not for the pros. Not for a bigger college program.
"As much as my plan was to call the Phillies when I retired, this definitely changed that plan," Coste said.
The new plan appears to be working for the 25-9 Cobbers, a nickname inspired by the cornfields that once surrounded the campus. Heading into the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference playoffs on Friday, third-seeded Concordia leads the conference in batting (.354), slugging (.556), homers (36), and runs (305). Outfielder Eric Carlsen's .494 average tops the conference.
This is what former head coach Bucky Burgau, who won 680 games in 36 seasons, envisioned when he hired Coste as an assistant in 2012. They swapped jobs this season.
"I was going to be 65 years old, and he's like a son to me," said Burgau, the conference's winningest coach. "He's the only one I would have done this for. And I knew he would let me stay on and be a part of it if I wanted to."
Coste's major-league career stalled soon after the 2008 championship. The Phils waived him in July 2009, and he finished the season with Houston. A serious elbow injury the next spring with Washington led to Tommy John surgery and, eventually, retirement.
Coste commuted from Fargo-Moorhead to Philadelphia for a part-time analyst's job with Comcast SportsNet.
A return to Concordia, where Coste won three conference MVP awards as a pitcher/third baseman in the mid-1990s, sprang from a lunch meeting with Burgau and Larry Papenfuss, then Concordia's athletic director. The college was raising money for a facilities project, and Papenfuss intended to ask Coste for a donation.
"Then the subject took a different direction," Burgau said. "Larry asked him what his long-term plans were, and Chris looked at me and said, 'I want his job.' He didn't say it in a bad way."
Burgau suggested that Coste be an assistant for a year to see how he liked it. Recruiting and instructing impressionable young players appealed to Coste more than he expected.
"I knew I would enjoy it, but I didn't know I was going to fall in love with it," Coste said. "After the first year, when our season was over, I knew this is what I wanted to do forever.
"Being home was a big part of it. Bottom line was, as much as I loved being with the Phillies and the Astros -- I was more of a Phillie than anything -- once I tasted what it was like to be home for an entire year, I knew I couldn't leave, especially when the [head coaching] job opened up."
Limited athletic budgets in Division III mean long bus rides, Fairfield Inns and Jimmy John's sandwiches instead of charter flights, Ritz Carltons, and all-night room service. Coste even holds a second job as the school's equipment manager, a common practice in Division III, where coaching salaries are nowhere near the $460,000 Coste earned with the Phils and Astros in 2009.
"There are times I've got a little more work than I'd like, being an ex-major-leaguer, but it's not difficult work," Coste said, smiling. Still, he said, "I can't imagine a situation that could possibly arise to let me leave this."
Junior shortstop Phil Kuball remembered his father, a Concordia graduate, calling him to the television to watch Coste bat in Game 1 of the 2008 World Series.
Kuball, a .301 hitter, said Coste fixed a mechanical flaw in his swing that enabled him to drive the ball to all fields.
"I knew all about the story from my dad, that he was kind of a legend, per se, at Concordia, but I didn't know anything about him as a coach coming in," Kuball said.
"From the first practice as a freshman to now, I'm a completely different player. He preached getting in the weight room, getting in shape. I've heard it a lot throughout my career. But when you hear it from your coach who's Chris Coste, you're going to listen."