It wasn't that long ago that the Phillies gave a shot to long-time minor leaguer Chris Coste. Coste was in his 12th minor league season without a sniff of having played in the majors when the Phillies called him up in May of 2006. At the time, it was just one of those comfy little feel-good stories about a guy toiling in the minors and finally getting a shot to play in the majors. Before long, Coste showed that he could hold his own in the majors and he hit .328 in 65 games with the Phillies that season. Before long, he had a book deal and was one of the fan favorites on the Phillies club.
For years, the Phillies have recognized the importance of these veteran types who spend most of their adult lives as minor league players. When they put together the inaugural roster for the Triple-A Lehigh Valley IronPigs, it included veterans Mike Cervenak and Andy Tracy. Now, both have spent two seasons with Lehigh Valley and both were part of the Phillies major league club last season. Andy Tracy is again up with the club this season and delivered a nice hit in the Phillies 5-4 win over the Mets Sunday afternoon, giving the Phils a much-needed insurance run. Only avid fans remember Tracy from his days in Montreal when he played 83 games with the 2000 version of the Expos. He's reached the majors in five different seasons and has a career .224 average in the majors, but his value is far beyond those numbers.
"Tracy knows so much about hitting and I loved to just hear him discuss his approach or what his plan would be against any one guy," said Phillies outfield prospect Michael Taylor.
Phillies outfielder John Mayberry Jr. agreed with Taylor, praising all of the minor league veterans that he played with this past season in the Lehigh Valley. "They've been kind of a crutch to lean on. They've been around this league for a while and they know the ropes, so any questions that I have - on the field or off the field - they've been very insightful," said Mayberry.
"It's an honor for Mayberry or for any young kid to make a comment like that to me at this point in my career," pointed out Tracy.
As important as veteran players are to young players, they take different approaches to passing along what they've learned. While both Cervenak and Tracy were team leaders at Lehigh Valley, they are very different types of people and take different approaches to lending a helping hand. While Tracy is a vocal leader both on the field and in the clubhouse, Cervenak is much more of a laid-back type of player who relies more on leading by example. Taylor believes that he benefited from both, but cited Cervenak's quieter approach as an inspiration. "Cervenak prepares as well as any player I have ever played with," said Taylor. "His ability to get into his pre and post-game routines and the steps he took to be ready for every play was impressive. In my time there I don't think I saw him give away an at-bat, no matter the score or the situation."
"I kind of wait for someone to come up to me," admitted Cervenak. "It's tough to go up to somebody that's had success. Guys at this level are here for a reason, because they've had success."
Meanwhile, Tracy is more willing to let players know what's going on without being asked. It's a completely different approach than Cervenak, but both work. "We're both two different people," noted Tracy. "He does things differently than I do and he does some things better than I do."
Another Lehigh Valley and minor league veteran is Rich Thompson. Thompson, a 30 year old who was born in Reading and spent part of his 2008 season with the Reading Phillies, has also been a key example for young players. While he has just one at-bat in the majors (with Kansas City in 2004), Thompson hasn't given up hope of getting back to the majors and his drive has helped set the tone for young players. His willingness to adapt to how he was being used with the IronPigs made an impact on Taylor. "Rich is a great example of the ultimate professional in that he was platooning, but got his work in always and would lend me advice not only about on the field stuff but also about how to handle myself off the field," said Taylor.
While younger prospects generally get most of the attention, veteran minor leaguers provide a key role with any minor league club. Players like Cervenak and Tracy have become fan favorites at Lehigh Valley, because like many of the young players that they impress, fans see how they conduct themselves on the field and enjoy watching them play. Tracy hit 26 home runs for Lehigh Valley this past season and drove in 96 runs, both good enough for second in the International League. His numbers certainly helped in getting him a spot on the Phillies 40 man roster and if given the chance at the major league level, he might be able to show that he can help not just with young players coming along in the system, but can lend a nice bat off the bench at the major league level as well.