As a chaser of improbable dreams, I wanted to love The 33-Year-Old Rookie, a first-person account by Phillies catcher Chris Coste of his slow and tortuous rise to the big leagues. Coste’s determination to persevere despite overwhelming odds is impressive and inspirational. His story is one worth telling.
As a lover of great baseball books, however, I found Coste’s narrative frustrating. It might be hard to be a big-league catcher, but it’s also hard to write a great story—especially one’s own. Throughout the book, I found myself wondering if someone further removed from the experience might have been able to draw out more interesting details and give us a better feel for the struggles Coste endured along the way.
Too often the emphasis is on how many hits the author collected in a particular game or on words exchanged in some mundane conversation. Coste presents his story using a wide-eyed “I’m gonna show them” persona that works well in small doses but which grows tiresome after a while. At some point, it’s not enough to know that things are awesome; show me why they are awesome.
In Coste’s defense, he is a catcher, not a writer. And I appreciate his conversational style: Coste’s voice is authentic, and I have no doubt that we are reading his words. Although the execution sometimes falters, I respect the effort.
There are some inspired moments in The 33-Year-Old Rookie. Coste’s account of a post-game rant by Doug Siminic, his Northern League manager, is hilarious and packs a punch line that could have come out of Bull Durham (“What? Haven’t you two ever seen a guy wipe his face with his ass before?”).
Earlier, the chapter on his time at Kishwaukee College, playing under a verbally and physically abusive coach, provides a chilling reminder of the price these young men often pay to pursue their dreams. Even though it wasn’t particularly pleasant, this was probably my favorite chapter in the entire book because it made Coste seem real to me.
Another anecdote relates how Coste got his foot in the door of the independent Northern League. A new team had formed in his home town, and bringing him on was primarily a public relations move. He later served as director of merchandising for the club during the off-season (when he wasn’t busy playing for them). These are great details that provide legitimate insight into Coste’s life as a minor leaguer.
Views of the actual struggle resonated with me far more than did passages like, “I know you think I am just some local-guy division III ballplayer who hit .255 in the Prairie League, but just keep your eyes open, because I guarantee I will surprise you.” Although I don’t doubt the veracity of such a statement, I also don’t really care. Too many variations on the same theme (“one against the world”) anesthetized me to the underlying reality that this is a guy honestly working to make a living doing what he loves.
Fluff that reveals nothing of character doesn’t help, either:
I’d gotten used to a wonderful lifestyle that I didn’t want to end. During the season, I would usually wake up around ten in the morning, have a quick breakfast, watch some television, drive to the golf course for six to ten holes of golf, do lunch, and then drive to the ballpark, which is an incredible privilege in itself.
I don’t mean to belittle Coste’s trials and tribulations, but the above could have described dozens of people I went to college with. It doesn’t give me any sense of Coste as a human being. This and similar passages lead me to believe that he is generic, but generic people seldom do exceptional things like reach the big leagues at age 33. What is it about this guy that drove him to achieve his dream when others would have yielded to reason? I seriously doubt it was the six to ten holes of golf.
There is a great story here; I’ve seen glimpses of it. The 33-Year-Old Rookie is good doctor’s-office material, but it has the potential to be so much more. Coste deserves better and so do we.
References & Resources
The 33-Year-Old Rookie, by Chris Coste