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Shooting Star -- Chris Yates

 

Chris Yates scores during the Fall Classic 18-and-over finals at Roger Dean Stadium last November. Yates spent three years in the minors, and now teaches hitting at the Great Lakes Baseball Academy in Canton, Mich.

By Jeff McGaw, MSBL On-Line

Chris Yates turned heads at the 2011 MSBL Fall Classic as he transformed the Roger Dean baseball complex into his own personal race track.

With his blazing speed, good stick and great defense, Yates helped two teams – the Coastal Stingrays in the 18-and-over division, and the Atlanta Bulls in the 35-National division, reach the finals at the 2011 Fall Classic.

The Stingrays gave up an early lead and fell to the Coral Gable A's 6-5 in extra innings at Roger Dean Stadium on Nov. 14. A week later Yates' Atlanta Bulls lost a hard-fought game 4-2 to the East Coast Cardinals in the 35 National finals also at Roger Dean Stadium.
Both losses were heartbreaking, but it wasn't the first time baseball had broken Yates' heart -- and it wasn't the worst time.

That moment occurred some 12 years earlier.

Chris Yates was an all-state basketball and baseball player in Eupora, Miss., and he was super fast.

After graduating from high school in 1991, Yates attended Holmes Community College as did another kid from a nearby Mississippi town – Roy Oswalt. From there Yates transferred to Mississippi Valley State – the same school where NFL great Jerry Rice played.

Yates big break came in 1996 when he attended a tryout and earned a spot on the Greensville Bluesman in the newly-formed Big South League. Ironically, the manager of the Bluesman was a man named Lyle Yates -- no relation to Chris.

Lyle Yates, now a coach with the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan, and who has also coached with the Rangers, Mets and Astros, already had a solid coaching resume in 1996. He skippered UC San Diego from 1982 to 1994, took over as manager of the California League Visalia Oaks in 1995, then took the job as the Bluesman's manager in 1996.

After finishing 35-36 in 1996, the Bluesman went onto win the championship. One big reason for the team's success was a skinny, left-handed pitcher and fleet-footed center fielder from Eupora named Chris Yates.

"He could run like the wind,” said Coach Yates. "His speed and athletic ability caught my eye right away,” He was a big part of that championship team. He was really, really good.” In 1997 Lyle Yates took a job as a pitching coach with the Houston Astros farm team in Kissimmee, Florida. "I told the Astros about Chris and they invited him to a tryout.”

"He got me a shot with the Astros,” Chris Yates said of Lyle. At that tryout Chris Yates ran a ridiculous 6.3-second 60 yard dash. "They said ‘can you do that again?'” Chris Yates recalled.

And then he did it again. Lyle Yates delivered the news. "Pack your bags. You're an Astro now,” he told Chris. "They signed him. He was amazing.”

Chris Yates loads up during the 2011 Fall Classic Both Lyle and Chris Yates helped the Auburn
Doubledays, an Astro's affiliate in the New York Penn League, win a title in 1998. "He (Chris Yates) was a big part of that team. I liked him. He was a great person. He was a diamond in the rough.” That team also included two up-and coming pitchers named Roy Oswalt and Johan Santana.

Yates led Auburn with five triples and 26 stolen bases – tied for third most in the New York Penn League according to Stephen Grande, a spokesman for the Astros. His 40 runs scored was second most on the team.

Yates was with the Astros until 1999. "It was the best time of my life. I got the experience of being around the professional atmosphere. I got to meet all the guys – a lot of those guys I played against are now in the big leagues – like Santana. "One day I had a day off and it was Johan's start. He came and said he wanted me in that lineup,” Yates recalled proudly. "We had fun times,” Yates said, adding with a laugh that "Santana drove my car – a '93 Camry -- more than I did.”

The 1999 season was going pretty well. At one point in the young season he had the highest average in the Gulf Coast League. He was named the player of the week and player of the month for the Astros.

On June 13, 1999 it all came crashing down.

That year, the Astros got a first found supplemental pick in the draft for the loss of free agent Randy Johnson. After passing on Brian Roberts, Carl Crawford, and Brandon Phillips, the Astros chose to invest in University of Mississippi star outfielder Michael Rosamond, a 6-4, 220-pound outfielder who led Ole Miss with 18 homers and batted over .300 in 1999.

Rosamond's spot on the roster meant somebody had to go home -- and that somebody was Chris Yates. "It was one of the saddest days of my life,” Yates said. "I totally did not expect it because I was having such success. It was a bitter shock to me.” At the same time, Yates, an undrafted walk-on player, learned a harsh lesson about the business side of baseball. "They didn't have any money invested in me,” and so he cleaned out his locker and drove home to Mississippi. "I was so frustrated at that news that I was kind of sour on the game. I really should have kept on playing because I had world class speed and good numbers,” he said. "I didn't have my head in the right place at the time. I went home. I was dumbfounded. I drove all the way back to Mississippi. "

Rosamond lasted eight years in the minors making it as high as Triple-A. He hit 94 homers and had a .243 average. He retired after the 2006 season.

Chris Yates' broken heart eventually healed. He moved to Detroit and took a job as the supervisor of recreation at the Heilman Recreation center where he oversaw everything from arts and crafts for kids to adult basketball leagues and summer baseball. That job was eliminated with program budget cuts after four years and Yates, so Yates found work at the Great Lakes Baseball Academy in Canton, Mich. He also coaches the Detroit ICE (Inner City Exposure) baseball program during the summer.

The transition from playing to coaching was fairly smooth, Yates said, because he never stopped being a student of the game – especially during his time with the Astros. The major league players had a separate facility and, Yates said, and after his own workout, he would go and watch some of guys from the big club work out. That's how he became good friends with Venezuelan-born Richard Hidalgo. "I was a sponge,” he said. "I was amazed at everything they said and taught me. (The big leaguers) didn't mind us coming down there and looking. It was awesome to watch those guys hit balls off a tee.”

Yates still loves the game. "I love playing in the MSBL,” Yates said. "I came across so many guys I played against in college and pro baseball,” he added. While he narrowly missed out on two rings at the 2011 Fall Classic, Yates has had his share of Fall Classic glory. As a member of the Detroit Dodgers, the Susquehanna Assault, the Atlanta Bulls, the Chicago Oaks and the Chicago Brooklyn Royals Yates has accumulated seven Fall Classic rings.

"Everybody is out there to become a champion,” he said. "I love winning.”

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Rodney Tafoya
Chris Yates and Digz!!! Great players from Detroit!!! Winners!!! Love playing with and against them...
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