A League of His Own

The “kid who’s never been handed anything” earns his way into pro baseball.

By Vin Sylvia

Guy Mader entered the Anaheim Angels’ draft meeting last spring with a dossier on prospect Jason Coulie and directions from the team’s scouting director to hand over the folder when the appropriate moment in Major League Baseball’s June amateur draft arrived.

Inside the folder were listings of the outfielder’s height, weight, and other vital statistics; measurements of his foot speed and bat speed, his arm strength and his vertical leap; figures representing his Bates batting average, his home run and RBI totals, his fielding percentage, and stolen bases.

There were grades rating Coulie’s five basic baseball “tools” – hitting, hitting for power, running, fielding, and throwing. There were projections of where a professional career would take him, and of when he would arrive.

And there was biographical information that led Mader, Anaheim’s national scouting cross-checker, to the following conclusion: “This kid has never been handed anything.” That was the thought that kept coming back to him. What made Coulie special – and what other teams were sure to recognize – was his knack for creating opportunities where none seemed to exist, and his desire to succeed beyond anyone else’s expectations.

When the Angels selected left-handed pitcher Adam Pace in the eighth round, Mader decided he couldn’t wait any longer. He handed Coulie’s folder to scouting director Donny Rowland.

“I was concerned that if we didn’t move then, the Reds or Red Sox were going to take him,” Mader says, “and I didn’t want to lose him.”

This is how a young man who batted ninth for his high school team; who went to Division III Bates College with football as his main athletic focus; who was overlooked not only by the prestigious Cape Cod League but also by its summer-season second cousin, the New England Collegiate Baseball League; who entered this year’s draft with no remaining college eligibility – and hence no bargaining leverage – came to be the ninth of Anaheim’s 50 selections, the 260th of 1,452 players drafted this year.

If Coulie makes it all the way to the big leagues, as Mader believes he could within four years, he will have followed a route that isn’t merely unconventional, but perhaps unprecedented. It is a route that began in a cramped Manchester, N.H., apartment as the lonely child of a single, working mother; continued through the shadows of more heralded high school athletes; and branched into a four-sport career at Bates.

If he hadn’t grown four inches during his first couple of years at Bates, Coulie would not be able to pursue his big-league dreams. In the context of his life, however, the growth spurt was but a small part of what made him the 6-foot-2, 205-pound athlete who graduated in May with a double major in English and French and left New England two weeks later to join the Class A Boise Hawks in Idaho.

“Genetics had something to do with it, but Jason also worked his butt off to get stronger and faster – to make himself better,” says Craig Vandersea, Bates’ head baseball coach. “Jason deserves all the credit for where he’s gotten himself academically and athletically.”

“If there’s someone who deserves a break like this…oh, my God,” adds Wayne Sanderson, a longtime coach at Manchester Central, Coulie’s high school. “You have to be so mentally tough to endure and succeed the way Jason has.”

If you want to know why Coulie went in the ninth round, rather than in the 15th or 16th, where even the most highly-rated prospects with no remaining college eligibility typically get selected, according to Mader, such testimony provides a pretty good explanation.

“He has raw tools,” Mader, whose earlier signings include current major leaguers Jason Bere and Gary DiSarcina, says of his latest prized find. “He isn’t polished in terms of having played against Division I competition, but he’s a five-tool player with plus-plus makeup off the boards. Based on the time we’ve spent together, I’d like to have a whole clubhouse of people just like him.”

Jason Coulie doesn’t know where his father is, and he isn’t interested in finding out. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t think about the man, whom he last had contact with almost 10 years ago, about four years after his parents divorced.

“Growing up without a father – that’s what’s pushed me,” he says. “Leaving us was his choice, not mine, and he has to live with it. Someday, he’ll be sitting at home, maybe watching a baseball game with a friend, and he’ll see me on TV. He’ll say ÔThat’s my kid,’ and know he screwed up.”

Claire Coulie worked hard to provide for him in her ex-husband’s absence, Jason recalls, but her night shift as a postal worker meant mother and son often didn’t see each other for as many as five days at a time.

“We communicated mostly through post-it notes during the week, and I’d see her on weekends,” he says. “I had to grow up pretty fast. I had to make my own dinners, find my own rides to different places. My mom gave me a lot of freedom and a lot of responsibility. She trusted me to make the right decisions. I’ve never done drugs, and I didn’t drink at all in high school. When we won the state (baseball) championship my junior year, there was a celebration party that night. I just sat in front of the TV, watching highlights of the game.”

“I never had to worry about him,” Claire says. “He always did the right thing. If I told him to be home by a certain time, he’d be there. He helped me around the house, in school he was an honor-roll student – he’s been very responsible all his life. He’s almost the perfect son.”

Sports, Jason says, were always an outlet. Long before high school, he’d escape the tedium of his apartment by going out into a field, throwing a ball as far as he could, running to retrieve it, then throwing it back in the opposite direction – over and over again. Or he’d stand 60 feet, 6 inches away from the rectangle he’d painted on the side of the apartment building where he lived, and fire baseballs at the brick and mortar strike zone.

“That’s probably how I developed a strong throwing arm,” he says.

For the most part, Coulie’s high school athletic career was spent as a supporting player. Football became his first love, and the 5-foot-10 wide receiver had good speed and great hands. In baseball, Coulie played center field. While he did deliver some clutch hitting in the team’s 1994 championship game, Coulie sometimes didn’t bat at all, his coach choosing to use the designated hitter in his spot.

When college recruiting time came, Bates was the only school to call.

College athletic careers can’t get off to a much worse start than Coulie’s did. First football game, first catch, fractured ankle. That, he initially thought, was that.

But despair quickly turned to added determination. He wouldn’t simply use rehabilitation to get back to where he was, Coulie decided; he’d use it to improve. The growth spurt already had begun, and now he started bulking up, too, furiously lifting weights while working on his speed. His days as a supporting player were about to end.

After serving as a freshman reserve on the baseball team, he arrived for football training camp in 1997 bigger, stronger, faster. He earned a starting job at receiver, then cracked the baseball lineup as the regular center fielder and began a three-season streak of leading the Bobcats in batting average and home runs. The following year, he joined the indoor and outdoor track teams, becoming only the second Bates athlete ever to win four varsity letters in a single academic year and improving his 40-yard dash time from 5.0 seconds to 4.5.

By the time he finished at Bates last May, Coulie owned school football records for receptions in a game (12), catches in a season (63), receiving yards in a season (852), and longest reception ever (84 yards). He ranks first on the Bobcats’ all-time baseball list in hits (123), home runs (21), and total bases (213) – all in only 95 games. His track and field achievements include two school relay records (in the indoor sprint medley and outdoor 4 x 100 meters) and a Division III All-New England performance as a pentathlete.

It took a power-hitting demonstration at a 1999 baseball tryout camp in Massachusetts, though, to attract the attention of pro scouts.

“That’s what opened my eyes,” says Mader. “After that, he was one of the guys I keyed on.”

The Angels followed Coulie closely while he put up senior-year numbers that included a .415 batting average, seven home runs, 23 RBI, and 20 stolen bases in 25 games. After Bates finished its season May 4, the Angels flew him out to California to take part in a workout with about 30 other prospects.

“He did well, and I knew he was even better than he showed in the workout,” says Mader. “It was clear to me that he was one of the best athletes on the field.”

Tougher times lie ahead. Coulie knows that. Some of his Class A teammates played in more games during the past 12 months than he played in his entire college career.

But Coulie is no stranger to tough times.

“I know I can handle anything that’s thrown at me,” he says, “and I can’t wait to get it thrown at me.

“I want this so bad – so bad,” he continues, speaking again of someday playing in the major leagues, with all the people who underestimated him and the father who abandoned him looking on. “I know I’m going to be the hardest working kid out there. Practice, games, on the field, off the field – I’ll be going 110 percent all the time.”

This is what Mader is counting on. This is what led him to hand his boss Coulie’s folder on the first day of the draft.

“He might be a little behind to start with, but after a year or two, he’ll catch up,” Mader says. “He has the raw ability, and he’s coachable. Within two seasons, he could possibly be in Double-A, and I really think he’s got a shot at being in the big leagues in four years.”

Who, at this point, would dare bet against him?

This article first appeared in the New Hampshire Sunday Nws. It is repreinted in edited form with permission. Readers can follow Jason Coulie in the Anaheim Angels’ farm system at www.futureangels.com.