Colter’s first trip to Yankee Stadium was a surreal experience for him. Ever since he was that kid learning how to pitch in our front yard, he’d been a Yankees fan. Our family has been Southern since we got off the boat in Charleston, South Carolina in 1767. If you live in the South, you pull for the Braves, not the Yankees. Our grandfather, a life long Braves fan, was beside himself with pride when Colter went pro, but part of him was asking – “why the Yankees?” If you ask me, I think Colter believed if you could make it with New York, you’d really made it as a baseball player. The Yankees have the money and prestige to get the best players in the world, they don’t necessarily have to rely on their farm league. When Colter walked out on the field on that spring night in 2005, he had achieved a lifetime of dreams…and he’d done it the hard way.
When I talked to him the next day, I couldn’t wait to hear all the details. I told him to tell me everything and I listened as he spoke like a kid who had met his hero. He flew in last-minute and took a cab to the field. As he stepped out of the cab, with all his luggage in tow, it was like – “what now?” He’d never even been to Yankee Stadium before and now he was supposed to walk in and make his professional debut. He asked someone where to go and was pointed in the right direction. He had to walk down this long, narrow hallway to get to the clubhouse. The hallway felt low and narrow, but Colter could sense the history. At the time the hallway had been built, there weren’t too many 6’7″ guys walking down it.
When he reached the locker room, he looked around and players with names like Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi and Derek Jeter were all there. Here he was, Colter Bean, from Alabama, standing in the same room with some of the greatest baseball players in the game today. He was directed to his locker and a horde of reporters were there waiting. He said he was confused at first because he didn’t realize they wanted to talk to him. He thought they were there for somebody else, surely. That’s the kind of exposure playing for the Yankees will get you. If that doesn’t intimidate you, I’m not sure what will…but Colter didn’t let it. He went out and pitched two innings of good, old-fashioned baseball. He showed he was a fighter and didn’t back down if he got behind the count on a batter or two. After all, being a fighter is what got him to center stage in Yankee Stadium, the “House that Ruth Built.” That night, he slept in the Ritz Carlton in New York City. Not bad for someone used to sleeping on the floor of a minor league bus.
Over the next couple of years, Colter would return to the Bigs a few more times. He pitched in Shay Stadium and the legendary Fenway Park, but I don’t think anything meant as much to him as that first night on the home turf. He said it was one of the best days of his life. To this day, he has the lineup from that night framed in his house. As high as this night was, many lows were to follow.
During Spring Training the following year, he was invited again to Big League Camp. He’d worked very hard over the off-season to get stronger and be mentally ready for the challenge ahead – he was determined to win a spot on the 25 man roster and begin the season in New York. 2006 brought stiff competition since the Yankees had signed Randy Johnson. Colter put up an ERA of around 2.5, pitching against major leaguers. As the days went by he continued to get his hopes up that he’d made the team. On the last day of Spring Training, Joe Torre called Colter in and broke his heart – he hadn’t made the team. The reason why was never clearly explained. He’d put up better numbers than some of those being paid millions, but in the end, not being paid millions did him in. He learned that in modern-day baseball, it’s not about the best players on the field, it’s about the those with the best hype. Marketing and agents are everything and you better get started in high school if you want to make The Show permanently.
This past fall, Colter hung up his glove and headed South. It had been a long road. He’d lasted long enough to prove everyone wrong – he could play the game, better even than he was ever given credit. He left with no regrets. Regardless of what the official record book says, no one can argue with the fact that he worked his way up through the Yankee farm league to the Show and competed. He competed with guys jacked up on steroids and million dollar bank accounts. He never sold out and he left with many stories to tell his son one day. He didn’t sell out. He persevered.
-photos courtesy of Getty Images