A regional offering by former big-leaguer Jim Coates, written with Douglas Williams, “Always a Yankee,” (Infinity Publishing, $15.95) might be that rare item — a book that holds appeal for fans of Virginiana as well as the New York Yankees. Coates grew up in a rural area of the Northern Neck, so poor that his mother made him his first baseball out of twine and old socks, and somewhat of a loner. But he was mindful of his powerful pitching arm and determined to go places. Through grit and more than little good luck, the coastal Virginia farm boy became a steady presence on the mound for the Yankees for two years starting in 1959.
Coates' story includes youthful travails playing in the Tidewater-based Chesapeake League to pitching four scoreless innings in a World Series game for the Yanks in 1961. The book offers a glimpse of the dynamics of Virginia's early barn-lot and farm-club baseball and insight into what it was like to play alongside, and against, legends such as Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams and Willie Mays.
In an even tone, Coates (a journeyman thrower who was good enough to make the All-Star team in 1960) recounts the hometown bitterness that surrounded his professional signing in 1951. He and co-author Williams are particularly good at conveying the insecurities of a starry-eyed minor leaguer (Coates spent seven years in the Yankees' farm system), and how it feels to finally arrive, with sweat on the brow, in the big leagues.
Take this passage, in which Coates finds himself pitching in the World Series, and forgetting all he knows:
“‘All I need to do is throw strikes,' I told myself. With two outs and the opposing pitcher coming to hit, I had reasons to believe that the worst part was behind me. ‘Just throw strikes,' I repeated. This however was much easier said than done. Suddenly, my control was gone!”
After leaving baseball, the personable Virginia native worked a variety of jobs, including a stint at the Newport News Shipyard. His thin but striking memoir of life on the diamond is gentle on the gossipy stuff, but it gives readers an interesting, heretofore unrepresented perspective from another part of the dugout.