NILES, Ohio – Coco Crisp was batting .250 while playing for the New Haven Ravens in 2002. It was not the season he hoped for, coming off being named the St. Louis Cardinals’ minor league player of the year in 2001.
Before the 2002 season, Crisp filled out a biographical form for the team in which he listed his favorite food, movie and nickname, which was Coco.
His first name is Covelli and that is what everyone called him until one night his nickname appeared on the scoreboard at New Haven.
That’s when his luck began to change and when Coco became his handle.
“It took my mind off of everything that was going on,” says Crisp, who is now the Mahoning Valley Scrappers manager. “I’m like, ‘What the heck?’ I got a base hit. I start rolling again. They were going to take it down after my [batting average] went from .250 past the halfway point [of the season] to .310 or whatever it was. I said, ‘No, we’re going to keep it up there.’ ”
He was traded six weeks after the name change to the Cleveland Indians’ organization, eventually finishing the season with the Major League club after short minor-league stints with the Indians’ Class AA and AAA teams.
The first-year Scrappers’ manager remembers spending time on working hard and learning the finer points of the game in the minor league system. He emphasizes team chemistry and hustling to his players on the new MLB Draft League team.
“All that work you did in the offseason, don’t let it go to waste just because you’re jogging down to first base,” Crisp says.
The Indians, Boston Red Sox, Oakland Athletics and Kansas City Royals were among Crisp’s MLB stops in his 15 seasons – amassing 309 stolen bases in his professional career. It was nowhere near the total of his childhood hero, Rickey Henderson; the Major League hall of famer holds the record with 1,406.
Crisp, who was born in Los Angeles, remembers going to baseball card shows with his dad at the Rose Bowl and other places and attempting to obtain as many Henderson cards as possible.
Crisp’s father compiled a video of Henderson, which he embraced as he learned the finer points of the game. Years later, Crisp met Henderson, who was a special instructor with the Athletics organization.
“Initially, it was a little intimidating because he’s my guy that I looked up to as a young player,” Crisp says. “I got a chance to play against him in 2002 when he was with Boston, which was pretty cool.”
To be in the clubhouse with him was definitely one of those dream-fulfilled moments.
“Throughout the years, we’d play cards together,” Crisp says.
Ken Griffey Jr. was another MLB player that Crisp idolized. This hall of famer hit a fly ball to Crisp early on in his professional career, one he snagged in his leather mitt in center field – briefly starstruck.
“I caught Griffey, watching him play all this time,” Crisp says. “You know his batting stance growing up as a kid and all that stuff. To have moments like that are really special.”
Playing in the World Series is the pinnacle for an MLB player, something Crisp did in 2007 with the Red Sox and in 2016 with the Indians.
The second time around, he was one of the leaders in the clubhouse because he knew how to deal with the biggest stage in the game.
“We had some young players on the team,” Crisp says. “I told them to breathe. Things can get a little tense within yourself in big moments and stuff like that. Just go back to the old, basic thing. You’re born, slapped on the butt, you breathe, you cry. Minus the crying, go out there, breathe, be yourself. Have fun.”
Sometimes it’s the fans who have the fun. Playing outfield leads to other things, namely getting heckled. He says the worst was in front of the Chicago White Sox fans.
“They get my gold star for the best hecklers,” Crisp says.
He remembers one night in 2009 playing for the Royals in which he tore his right rotator cuff – the tissues connecting muscles to bone around the shoulder joint.
“I couldn’t throw,” he says. “I didn’t have the best arm to begin with in the league. But now I’m throwing grenades out there trying to continue to play.
“There was somebody out there in the stands saying, ‘Throw the ball in. My grandma could throw the ball better than you,’ or something like that. I’m trying. I’m over here injured.”
Those incidents are rarities though, as Crisp says he thoroughly enjoyed the fans from all his stops from Cleveland to Boston.
“You build those relationships with the fans,” he says. “That’s been very special to me.”
He’s now on the other side of the baseball diamond as a manager.
Crisp retired after the 2016 season to spend time with his children and as a youth and high school baseball coach. He finished his second season with Cerritos (California) College as the baseball team’s bench coach.
Vic Buttler, coach of the Cerritos College team, told Crisp of the opportunity to manage in the MLB Draft League where former Southern University coach Kerrick Jackson is the commissioner. Crisp played at Southern after high school.
“I just love the game,” Crisp says. “I’ll never close the door on any type of opportunity. I’ve been fortunate that I haven’t had to look for anything.”
Pictured: Coco Crisp saw his batting average rise after he started being referred to by his nickname, not his first name, Covelli.