CHICAGO -- For about 40 minutes on the day before this past Thanksgiving, a U.S. Cellular Field conference room nestled in the back of the main offices transformed from White Sox business to a family affair.
Sitting on one side of the conference room table was Roynal Coleman, the 41-year-old beaming father, playing the part particularly strong on this November evening. Across from him was Ronell Coleman, a senior at Simeon Career Academy located in Chicago's inner city who just days earlier joined 11 of his friends and teammates from the White Sox Amateur City Elite baseball program at the ballpark, officially signing a letter of intent to play collegiately at the Division I level.
The younger Coleman will be attending Vanderbilt University, a four-year trip to Nashville, Tenn., that was made possible in part by Nathan Durst, the man sitting to the right of him at the table. Durst, a national crosschecker for the White Sox, stood at the forefront of the ACE program aimed at giving Chicago talent a chance to play against other competitive traveling teams and point them toward the collegiate direction.
In this picture, though, Durst becomes more than a coach or a guiding force. He is like a brother to the elder Coleman, whom Durst coached at Kishwaukee College during Roynal's own successful baseball run. The bond is so deep and the respect is so high that when Roynal Coleman was incarcerated more than five years ago for what he terms as a crime "pertaining to drugs," he couldn't break the news to Durst for fear of letting him down.
"It was the best-kept secret they kept from me," Durst said.
"You have friends, but then you have the people who you look to for respect as a brother, and that's how I felt about Nathan," Roynal said. "That's why I felt terrible. I just couldn't come to grips and tell him."
Roynal's life is baseball -- make that baseball and pushing his son to be the best. Even with this aforementioned misstep, the Coleman family not only survived but thrived.
The topic of Roynal's incarceration in the federal system arises somewhat early in the conversation, and he doesn't try to dodge the matter. It was a mistake, a poor decision, for which he paid with four years of his life before being released in the summer of 2011.
Coleman's main regret is not being physically there for his only child during Ronell's formative years. It's an issue that both seem to have reconciled, leaving Roynal with a great sense of pride in his son based on how he responded.
"I'm so impressed with him now that he persevered and stayed strong," said Roynal of his son, who turned 18 on Thanksgiving and lives with his mother. "He easily could have went in the corner and did the wrong thing. That would have been his excuse. I know I hurt him. I was with him every day, working out three hours a day, since he's been 6 years old."
Even being away, Roynal still had to be a dad. He would call and write Ronell, making sure that he was studying hard and getting in his 2,000 swings per week, reminding him that he couldn't break now.
"I knew I couldn't crawl into the corner, so it motivated me," Ronell said. "I wanted to do better so when he came home, he saw I was trying to improve myself, not only as a ballplayer but as a person.
"There's no question I had to grow up faster than most kids around me, and it was a very hard time for me and my mom. But it made me a better person overall. It made me work hard because I wanted to be successful. I could have easily started to do bad things, but that's not the type of person I am."
News of Roynal's incarceration didn't reach Durst until after Roynal was gone. It was a mutual friend who confirmed the situation, when a man Durst talked to daily about baseball suddenly went incommunicado for three weeks. Durst figured Roynal had either gone into witness protection or gone to jail.
This lapse in judgment didn't break a brotherly relationship covering more than two decades. In fact, Roynal has become a first-person authority to the kids in the ACE program, demonstrating the importance of overcoming mistakes and setting your life straight. His baseball acumen doesn't hurt in their development, either.
"We get a lot of players from at-risk areas," Durst said. "You can hear it from me, but I'm originally from Central Wisconsin. I can scout there and I can be there, but when we get information from Ro, it's living it.
"It's saying, 'This could happen, if you make this mistake.' For him to be able to speak bluntly to all of our kids, words cannot begin to describe how important that is."
Can't measure heart
A first glance at Ronell, or "Little Ro," as Durst calls him, wouldn't exactly evoke thoughts of a standout baseball player. He stands at 5-foot-5 and 145 pounds, serving as the ultimate personification that you can't judge a book by its cover.
"When I play against a lot of kids, they think I can't play: 'Why is he on the field?'" the soft-spoken but eloquent Ronell explained. "That doesn't discourage me, because I might be 5-foot-5, but I play like I'm 7 feet. I have the heart of a lion. I play hard and give it my all every time. Size doesn't mean anything."
"Nobody will outwork him, on or off the field," Durst said. "He had to eliminate the size. In order to do that, you had to see him over a stretch of games and really see the small things he does to win games."
Small things, according to Durst, such as scoring a couple of runs per game, stealing a base or two, playing "a tremendous second base" and presenting the true skill set of a leadoff man by taking at-bats deep into the count and fouling off a lot of pitches. Ronell also has that hard-nosed leadership quality, where he's not afraid to express to his teammates they need to get it going in the winning direction.
As a freshman at De La Salle Institute, the switch-hitter posted a .400 average. He followed that up by hitting .490 as a sophomore and then batted .400 again as a junior after moving to Simeon. Ronell's father has been his No. 1 baseball teacher, as well as his No. 1 supporter.
"Both of them did a tremendous job of really working hard at this whole thing," Durst said.
"To this day, nobody in America put in more work than we had," Roynal said. "I always told him, 'You have to play with a chip on your shoulder and play with reckless abandon. Bust it in the classroom, on the field and in life. Be respectable, walk with your head up.' When somebody runs a cat or dog into the corner, it's going to come out fighting. I said, 'You've got to be that person now.'"
Serious talent, but not a serious attitude
What do Manny Ramirez, Einar Diaz, Damian Jackson and Richie Sexson have in common? They were all Major Leaguers who at one time played Minor League baseball with Roynal as part of the Indians system. Coleman tells the story of going to lunch with Ramirez when he was a rookie and visiting Chicago.
Cleveland selected the elder Coleman in the 24th round of the 1990 First-Year Player Draft, and the right-handed-hitting outfielder played parts of three seasons before an ankle and Achilles injury brought an end to his fledgling career. He tried one more run in 2000 via 10 at-bats with Dubois County of the Frontier League in independent baseball.
Durst compares the father's playing ability to his son's, describing a fleet-footed leadoff man who could go get it in center field. Roynal never had a fatherly influence to guide him or push him to another level, which might explain why the game never became meaningful enough for him to accept as a profession.
"With the environment I grew up in, nobody played baseball," Roynal said. "There was nobody there showing you, and I didn't really train in the offseason.
"That's why with ACE, kids have such a great opportunity to get to college, and that's the ultimate goal with the program. Get kids to go to school. Get the education to do things you need to do in life."
In the case of Coleman's son, the program provided a chance for baseball and that education.
Hard work means success
Kevin Coe, the White Sox manager of youth baseball initiatives, took park in this pre-Thanksgiving interview session with Roynal, Ronell and Durst. In his position with the ACE program, Coe has become part of the Coleman extended family as well.
Asked about the younger Coleman as a baseball talent, Coe instead pointed out that Coleman was the only player aside from his son who got into his car and started reading a book upon the first time they met.
"I've had a lot of kids ride in my car when I was coaching," said a smiling Coe. "I knew the caliber of baseball player he already was. To get in a car and be reading a book on the way to the game, it kind of tells me what his character really is, what he felt was important."
If baseball doesn't pan out as a career, Ronell would like to come back to Chicago and help inner-city kids either through baseball lessons like his father or opening up a facility with his baseball friends. Ronell first has four years of Vanderbilt to look forward to, an experience made possible in part through his baseball excellence.
That excellence was made possible, in part, through Roynal's guidance during good times and bad. That preparation involved throwing batting practice to him at eight, in teaching him to hit the fastball, right up through the recent unplanned life lessons.
"These two are an emotional one for me because of my history with them and everything else," Durst said. "I'm very proud of both of them."
"My dad is my best friend -- whenever I need to talk to him about anything, he's there for me," said Ronell. "If it wasn't for my dad, I probably wouldn't be where I'm at right now."
"You get that degree from Vanderbilt, and you can do whatever you want," Roynal said. "If pro ball should happen for him, that's great. But if it doesn't happen, going to a school like Vanderbilt is like you are playing pro ball right there."