Phil Coke hits homer for Sonora

September 23, 2008 12:00 am

There's no shortage of bad news these days.

Huge Wall Street investment firms are collapsing like the Washington Nationals' pennant hopes in April, 401ks are shrinking faster than a Raiders' lead in the fourth quarter and our presidential campaign is turning as negative as a Seattle basketball fan whose NBA club just moved to Oklahoma City.

So what's the answer to this case of early fall doldrums? Where is the hope, the optimism, the American spirit of prevailing over long odds?

The above stretched metaphors notwithstanding, they're in sports.

Don't believe it? Consider 26-year-old Sonoran Phil Coke.

While the rest of us were enjoying the emotional farewell to Yankee Stadium on TV Sunday night, Coke said goodbye to the House that Ruth Built by taking the mound for the Pinstripers, notching two key outs, helping his team to a 7-3 win and preserving a perfect 0.00 earned run average that now spans nine games and more than 11 innings.

And to think only seven years ago Phil was pitching for the Sonora High Wildcats — and occasionally getting lit up by the likes of Riverbank and Oakdale. Still, Coke pitched many more good innings than bad, and as a senior, made the Valley Oak League's second team.

But a VOL second-teamer making the New York Yankees? And baffling some of the best hitters on the planet with a 95 mph fastball? What are you smoking?

Sure, in high school Coke's heater had already hit a sizzling 89 mph and had attracted the notice of a Florida scout. In fact, the Marlins took him in the 49th round — the 1,450th pick altogether — of the 2001 Major League draft.

But would this guy ever be a candidate for the starting rotation of the most storied team in baseball? "Fuhgeddabougtit," a Yankee fan might snort.

Heck, Coke himself didn't believe it. He opted for two years of junior college ball at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton. Then, in the ‘03 draft, was picked by the Yanks in the 26th round and sent so deep in the bush leagues you'd need a machete to get there.

So would he follow Lefty Gomez and Whitey Ford to the Yankee Stadium mound? Phil Coke still had a better shot at selling insurance, skeptics would have answered.

Then he played rookie and Single-A ball, riding on buses, sleeping in motels, eating bad food and dreaming a dream that comes true for only a few minor leaguers. "I just kept doing what I had to do to get to the next level," shrugged Coke.

For five years he persevered, and this spring moved up to Double A — where his earned run average rose faster than the speed of his fastball. But he tamed that ERA down from 16.00 to 5.00, climbed to Triple-A ball and, on Aug. 31, debuted for the Yanks in a win at Detroit.

Coke entered Yankee Stadium's final game in the sixth inning Sunday night and fanned two-time all-star Brian Roberts with two Orioles on. Then, in the seventh, he got Nick Markakis on a comebacker before Joba Chamberlain and Mariano Rivera took the mound to end an 85-year era.

"I was more excited than nervous," said Coke Monday. "That I was able to get in the game and do my job — that was unreal."

A dream come true? Nope, said Coke, his dreams were never this crazy.

"I couldn't have even begun to speculate on what this was going to be like," said the man with a still-perfect ERA. "It still isn't real."

So take heart doom-and-gloomers: There is hope.

U.S. golfers won the Ryder Cup, the Chicago Cubs have the best record in the National League, the once-lowly 49ers are winning.

And a hard-working, never-say-die, green-and-gold-bleeding Sonora kid is the New York Yankees' latest phenom.