Two modern-era stars who won a lot of games together with the Buffalo Bisons will be honored Friday night at Coca-Cola Field with induction to the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame.
Catcher and jack-of-all-trades Chris Coste, who made a widely chronicled climb out of North Dakota independent ball and eventually won a World Series with the 2008 Philadelphia Phillies, and rugged infielder Greg LaRocca will be joining longtime official scorer Kevin Lester in the Hall. They will be inducted in ceremonies prior to the Herd’s game against the Columbus Clippers.
And true to the strong team-first attitudes of the early 2000s Bisons under managers Eric Wedge and Marty Brown, each player was thrilled to give props to the other when reached by phone this week.
Coste on LaRocca: “He was a little guy who we all called ‘Rock’ because of his name but he played that way too. He could run, he went flying into bases, he could hit for power. He fit right into that Buffalo attitude. He was a great team guy. We had so many guys who wanted to win in Buffalo and he was one of them.”
LaRocca on Coste: “That’s a storybook career right there. We can all identify with somebody like that who sticks it out and comes out on top. I was so happy to see him in the big leagues after we had been in Buffalo. I was playing in Japan and I kept following him. It’s really cool to have guys you know make it when there’s no guarantees and you’re not on everybody’s lists.”
Coste and LaRocca, both 42, become the second set of modern-era teammates inducted in the same year, joining 1990s stars and fellow Cleveland farmhands Jeff Manto and Torey Lovullo (Class of 2003).
Coste batted .307 in 230 games with Buffalo on three straight playoff teams from 2000-2002, an average that’s fourth on the modern-era list. He was named Buffalo’s MVP and an International League All-Star in 2002 when he batted .307 and collected 67 RBIs in 124 games.
Coste played 299 games with the Phillies and Houston from 2006-2009 after 11 seasons in the minors, batting .272 and starting at DH in Game One of the 2008 Series at Tampa Bay. He has written a pair of autobiographies, including the critically acclaimed 2008 book, “The 33-Year-Old Rookie.”
LaRocca played in 300 games for the Bisons from 2001-2003, compiling a .295 batting average while playing staunch defense at second and third base. He’s fourth in the modern era in doubles (73) and seventh in hits (324). He batted .290 or better in each of his three seasons and was Buffalo’s most valuable player in 2003 (.290-10-68).
LaRocca appeared in 39 major-league games with San Diego and Cleveland, batting .261. After leaving Buffalo in 2003, he spent the next seven years playing in Japan before retiring in 2010.
Coste’s Buffalo tale
Coste’s book vividly recalls the first time he came to Buffalo after getting promoted from Double-A Akron on June 1, 2000. Here’s what he wrote about then-Dunn Tire Park:
“Probably no other human being has been so excited to see the Buffalo skyline as I was. We made the three-hour drive in about two hours, somehow managing to evade the notoriously vigilant Ohio State Highway Patrol along Route 90. I’d heard about what a great city Buffalo was to play in and about its beautiful 18,000-seat baseball stadium.
“But when I walked through the center-field fence, 404 feet from home plate, and looked around, I was in awe. It was way bigger than any place I’d ever played in before; standing there was like stepping into a whole different realm of baseball.”
Coste said he knew the Indians wanted players ready for the big leagues and believed winning in Buffalo was important for that goal.
“That day in Buffalo was so huge,” he said this week. “People ask me moments that stand out in my career and there were a lot of turning points but that was absolutely one of those. It wasn’t just getting to Triple-A but it was the situation. Buffalo was an awesome city to be in. Once I started to have success playing in Buffalo, that’s when I really realized I could have success in the major leagues.”
Coste is best remembered as a Bison for two of the most bizarre games in franchise history, one in which he did pretty much everything and one that he missed the final 15 innings of after getting ejected.
The first came here on Sept. 9, 2001 in Game Five of the IL semifinals against Scranton. The Bisons suffered a bitter 6-2 defeat to end their season – in a 19-inning game that saw Coste get ejected in the fourth inning after he was called out at first on a double play and spiked his helmet. The quick thumb was magnified when Double-A call-up Mike Edwards went 0 for 5 in Coste’s cleanup spot and left two men on in the 16th.
“At that time, I wasn’t playing to get to the big leagues. I was playing to get to the IL finals,” Coste said. “That game was my World Series. I thought I had beaten the play and when I was called out, I tossed my helmet and it bounced straight up so it looked worse than it was. All the guy saw was the bounce and he tossed me quickly. It was very disappointing.”
On Sept. 1, 2002, Coste did it all in a 6-5, 16-inning Buffalo win at Syracuse. Seriously. He was the catcher for the first 12 innings – then pitched the last four innings in relief to get the win, even though he allowed a tying run in the 15th. Coste had been a pitcher at Division III Concordia (Minn.) College.
“To this day, that was the most fun I’ve ever had playing in a game in the minors – and I went 0 for 6 at the plate and broke my hand in the 13th when I got hit with a pitch,” he said. “It was one of those nights. I broke my hand so it was tough to swing through the playoffs and my elbow hurt for three months. I have a hard time explaining that game to people. They don’t believe me.”
The Rock of the Herd
In baseball parlance, LaRocca was a classic dirtbag. He could hit, he could slide hard into a base, dive hard for a groundball. Anything the team needed, he could do.
“I really found a home in Buffalo and I remember how they made you feel like a family,” LaRocca said. “The stadium was big-league, the atmosphere was great with the fans we had and they did a lot of community work that I was happy to be a part of. I had never done that before. I felt a deeper connection with the town than just baseball. It was a great new experience. The Indians were very straight shooting. I enjoyed my time with them.”
LaRocca said he was happy to have a small shot in the big leagues but his career took off when he batted .328 with 40 homers and 101 RBIs for the Hiroshima Carp in Japan in 2004. He said playing winter ball in Mexico helped with the transitions to a different kind of game and a different culture.
“It’s not just baseball. It’s cultural too,” he said. “It’s chopsticks, you can’t read. The language is something you don’t understand. You need an interpreter but you have to blend in. No matter what caliber of player, if you’re having problems outside of the game, you won’t play well. ... You have to be inwardly confident and outwardly humble.”
Coste said he and his wife, Marcia, often talk about their Buffalo days, particularly since his Hall election. His 16-year-old daughter, Casey, was a baby here but was able to enjoy the World Series and the Phillies’ victory parade. He has a 7-year-old daughter, Camryn, “who just thinks of me as Dad and not a ballplayer.”
After dabbling in television work in Philadelphia, Coste returned to his North Dakota/Minnesota roots this year by taking over as coach of his alma mater at Concordia. His team went 26-11 this season.
“I love what I do but it can be much more stressful than being a player,” he said. “You have less control. You take care of your job and let the team take care of itself. The coach sits back and lets the guys play.”
LaRocca actually met his wife, the former Amanda Besant of Williamsville, in 2002 through mutual friends. He laughed when recalling that the first time she came downtown to see him play, he was given a day off by Wedge and was in the dugout.
“But the next game she came I hit a home run and I got called up to the big leagues within a month of meeting her,” LaRocca said. “She was a good-luck charm.”
LaRocca lives in Bedford, N.H., 45 minutes north of Boston. He has a 7-year-old son, Caden, and a 5-year-old daughter, Kloe, and expects a few dozen of his wife’s friends and family to attend Friday’s ceremony. He is a North American crosschecker scout for the Orix Buffaloes, the Japanese team he wrapped up his career with from 2007-2010.
“I look for players like me who are the tweeners but maybe can’t stick in the big leagues,” he said. “I want to help them start another career and get a shot. It’s a good job.”