BUFFALO, N.Y. - There was a brief snow flurry in the morning. When the first pitch was thrown at Dunn Tire Park, the temperature was 38 degrees. The players adapted as best they could. Outfielder Chris Roberson from the visiting Ottawa Lynx cut the red sleeve off a shirt and pulled it over his head as a makeshift ski cap.
Baseball can be a cold business.
Nobody has to tell Chris Coste that.
Last season he was one of baseball's nicest stories, finally making it to the big leagues at age 33. Not only making it after starting the year as a nonroster invitee, but getting the job done. He batted .328 in 65 games. With runners in scoring position, he was even better: .356. He started 46 games behind the plate, many of them in the last 2 months as the Phillies rallied to get back into the wild-card race. In the process, he became something of a folk hero in Philadelphia.
And when the year was over, none of that seemed to matter. The Phillies signed free-agent catcher Rod Barajas and outfielder Jayson Werth, who was originally drafted as a catcher.
Coste was optioned back to Triple A over the weekend. Yesterday he played his first game for the Lynx against the Buffalo Bisons.
"It's easily the lowest moment of my career. Easily," he said quietly, sitting in a room off the visitors' clubhouse after Ottawa lost, 5-3. Coste started at first base, batted cleanup and went 0-for-3 with two walks. "I'll tell you what, when I got sent down at the end of last year's spring training [after batting .463], it hurt. But I had never been in the big leagues. I hadn't proven anything. Didn't necessarily deserve anything.
"This year, without playing a game in the offseason, out. Frustrating. Disappointing. Heartbreaking. You name it.
"I want so badly not to be bitter and in time I guess it will wear off. But the thing that alarms me is that I'm 34. I mean, I may never get back. I may get back. I have no idea. But to say I'm still on the radar, that I might get back is a minuscule consolation at this point. It feels like I was given a lottery ticket and someone stole it right out of my hands."
To the poets and sentimentalists, baseball is the summer game, all green cathedrals and a certain timelessness that can only exist in a contest with no clock.
That has never been really true, of course. For over a century, owners have been keeping one eye on the standings and the other on the bottom line. Heck, the Yankees got rid of Babe Ruth when they had no more use for him.
Most of the time, the impersonal side of the pageant is easy enough to ignore. Especially these days, when the players are often viewed as one-man corporations with seven-figure salaries.
Sometimes, though, it's not.
One of those occasions occurred when Coste took the field in a Triple A International League game yesterday.
"I remember last year on the plane ride back from Miami after the last game of the season thinking to myself, 'Man, I probably will never see the minor leagues again.' I probably jinxed myself right there," he said with a rueful shake of his head.
"The signings of Rod Barajas and Jayson Werth pretty much sealed my fate. There will be theories that it was because I hurt my hamstring and didn't get to play much in spring training. But, honestly, once those two guys were signed, I became totally obsolete.
"There was no need. I wasn't going to play third. I wasn't going to play first. So my only option was to catch. Well, they got Jayson Werth. Pat Gillick said on many occasions, with me sitting right next to him at different functions and the Fanfest in January that Werth can be the third catcher, no problem. So when I heard him say that with me sitting right next to him, that was writing on the wall."
What made that particularly tough to take is that so many pitchers - Jamie Moyer and Randy Wolf and Cory Lidle and Cole Hamels - had gone into manager Charlie Manuel's office to say how much they liked throwing to him.
"My whole career has been that way," he said. "I guess if I'm a GM, I'd want Rod Barajas. He's a very good catcher and a great teammate. But when they signed him that just proved right there they weren't confident in my catching.
"It was unfortunate because finally after all those years of trying to prove to people that I could catch, I thought I did. I really did."
Assistant general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. portrayed Coste as a victim of circumstances.
"I think he did a very good job for us last year, but a couple things happened," Amaro said. "We acquired another catcher. And the makeup of our club gave us an excess in that area. He didn't necessarily do anything to lose the job. It was just the makeup of our club and the fact that he had options."
But why sign Barajas for $2.5 million (with a club option for 2008 that includes a $500,000 buyout) in the first place? He batted .256 for the Rangers last season while starting 97 games and missing much of the final month with back spasms.
Coste is on a split contract that pays him $385,000 if he's in the majors or $156,000 in the minors.
Amaro said it was all about adding catching depth as a hedge against the lack of experience that Carlos Ruiz has.
Still, with the Phillies 1-6 and batting .188 with runners in scoring position, Charlie Manuel conceded that he missed having Coste around.
"Yes, yes we do," the manager said. "But he would be [just] a pinch-hitter right now. The way we stack up, with our bench, we have [Michael] Bourn as the extra outfielder for defense for Pat Burrell and we can't have another [extra] infielder.
"I think he'll be back in the big leagues with us. It's just a matter of time."
For that to happen, Coste will have to pull himself together mentally and play well. Nobody understands that more than he does.
"That's all I'm left with, and obviously I'm going to try as hard as I can to avoid the slump I put myself in last year when I got sent down, .177 through 5 or 6 weeks," he said.
"I played a long time in Triple A. And I've seen a lot of guys get sent down with 12 ERAs and hitting .180. And they'd complain and bitch about things and think they shouldn't be there. And I told myself I'd never be that guy.
"But after hitting .328, I'm trying the best I can to keep my mouth shut and not say a word. In time it will get a little easier every day. If I had started the season [in the big leagues] and was hitting .100 after the first month, I'd totally understand."
But he wasn't so he doesn't.
"When I get on the field I forget about it, but when I get back in the clubhouse or back to the hotel and think about what the Phillies are doing and where they're at . . . I can't even watch baseball. I really can't. I've tried watching on TV. I want to. I turn it on but within 30 seconds I have to turn it off," he said.
"It's very painful not to be wanted by your own team after last year. I was told that I just don't fit in with the scheme of the team. And that hurts. A lot. Because last year I fit in very well. And now, without even playing a game, I don't fit in."
Honestly, it's hard to figure out exactly how he fits in with the Lynx, either. Jason Jaramillo, a well-regarded prospect, figures to get most of the playing time behind the plate.
"He'll catch, play first, DH," Ottawa manager John Russell said. "I'll get him as much playing time as I can. I know he needs to get at-bats and I know he needs to catch some. I can't say how many days he'll catch but I'll try to get him back there a couple times a week."
Said Coste: "I've got no problem with that. I've never once pretended to be a starting major league catcher. Even after last year, I would never tell anyone I should be the starter. Never. But the way things worked last year [sharing time with Ruiz and Mike Lieberthal] was perfect and I would have hoped they would have continued to do it that way.
"It has nothing to do with Michael Bourn, it has nothing to do with Greg Dobbs. If I'm the manager, I want both those guys on my team. Same thing with Barajas and Werth. Two fine players. I want those guys on my team, too. But it was Barajas and Werth who kind of pushed me off the team."
Coste was such a good story last year that he has publishers interested in the book he's writing about his career. It's due to be out next spring.
"Maybe this will make another great chapter," he said. "Or another interesting chapter, at least."