CHICAGO – Nevest Coleman looked around the Chicago White Sox ballpark in wonder as he walked down the third base line.
Flanked by colleagues, Harry Smith and Jerry Powe, Coleman marveled at how much the stadium had changed since 1994, when he last worked for the team. As he took in the sights, legendary head groundskeeper Roger “The Sodfather” Bossard came over and embraced Coleman in a quick hug.
“I saved your spot for you,” Bossard said. “I knew you’d be back.”
And he told him, “Just remember, I’m counting on you to help me with that tarp, too.”
“I’m ready,” Coleman replied.
Coleman’s first day back at work Monday couldn’t be more remarkable. He’d been on the White Sox groundskeeping crew in 1994 when he was charged with a heinous rape and murder.
He spent the next 23 years behind bars until DNA evidence last November led prosecutors to vacate Coleman’s conviction, leading to his freedom. A Cook County judge granted him a certificate of innocence this month, clearing his name.
Soon after, the White Sox agreed to give him his old job back, helping Coleman realize a dream he often discussed in prison.
Local and national news reporters waited for Coleman’s return at 7 a.m. Smith stood outside the stadium, too, waiting for his old friend.
As Coleman approached Gate 4 at Guaranteed Rate Field, Smith remarked, “He got a little fatter, but that’s him.”
The two men hugged one another, and went inside, where Coleman, Smith and Powe shared a private moment in the tunnel leading to the field.
Back in the 1990s, the three men worked together on the grounds crew. Prosecutors pushed for Coleman to receive the death penalty after his trial in 1997, but a long line of character witnesses stood up for him at his sentencing hearing, including three White Sox employees.
Smith and Powe remain, while the other no longer works for the team. Powe is now Coleman’s supervisor.
“Glad to see him out. Glad to see him back,” Powe said. “I’m so happy for him, me and the White Sox.”
From the time he left high school, Coleman said he’s been on the job. He always wanted to be independent.
“I don’t like to ask anybody for anything,” Coleman told the Tribune last week – a point he emphasized again Monday.
Even while incarcerated, Coleman kept working, including a job making socks. Still, he particularly enjoyed his time with the Sox and said he considered it a “family.”
“I’d wake up in the morning proud to go to work,” Coleman said Monday. “A lot of times, you get people who get jobs, you go to work, you be like, ‘I don’t want to go.’ Here, I loved it.”
His Monday morning included a flurry of interviews. He sat in the home dugout talking to reporters.
At times, Coleman gazed at the giant advertisements, billboards, and television in the outfield, amazed by the changes.
Reflecting on his newfound freedom, Coleman said, “You get tired sitting around the house.”
“You won’t be sitting” here, Smith replied.
After about an hour reuniting with his friends, Coleman changed into a yellow rubber suit. He put on gloves and goggles then headed outside, where Power handed him a power washer to spray the ground clean.
The fairy tale return for Coleman was set in motion by friends and loved ones after he left prison in November. Speaking of his plans after his release, Coleman often mentioned the White Sox.
“I want to sit back for a while, get to know my family, and when the time comes around, go back to Comiskey Park,” Coleman recalled saying.
The White Sox heard his story, then invited him to 35th and Shields for a job interview. To Coleman’s delight, the team agreed to bring him back.
“We’re grateful that after more than two decades, justice has been carried out for Nevest,” the team said in a statement. “It has been a long time, but we’re thrilled that we have the opportunity to welcome him back to the White Sox family. We’re looking forward to having Nevest back on Opening Day at home in our ballpark.”
The Rev. William Vanecko, Coleman’s attorney Russell Ainsworth and a cousin, Richard Coleman, were instrumental in making Nevest Coleman’s wish come true.
Ainsworth said he reached out to share Coleman’s story through a relative who works in White Sox ticketing.
Vanecko knew Coleman from his days at Visitation Church in Englewood, down the block from the Coleman family home. The retired Catholic priest called the White Sox and told them about Coleman.
Vanecko said he wanted to ask, “Do you think you can give him 23 years seniority for the (time) he missed?” but bit his tongue.
Coleman’s cousin Richard also called the team.
“His first wish, before he wished for a hamburger, was to work for the White Sox,” Richard Coleman said. “That’s exactly what I told them.”
The White Sox that Coleman knew in 1994 have changed.
The ballpark changed names from Comiskey Park to U.S. Cellular Field and is now Guaranteed Rate Field. Seats are green instead of blue. The franchise lopped off several rows from the upper deck. There’s ivy on the center field backdrop and a bar in right field.
Frank Thomas, the league MVP when Coleman last worked for the Sox, went into the Hall of Fame in 2014. Ozzie Guillen and Robin Ventura, stars on the field when Coleman was incarcerated, each went on to manage the White Sox.
Guillen led the team to the 2005 World Series. Coleman remembers hearing a roar in his cell that October.
“I go, ‘What’s going on?’ ” he said. “The White Sox won.” Coleman recalled feeling happy for the team and city.
Since coming out of prison, he has stayed true to his word. He’s spent the past four months bonding with his four siblings, two children and three grandchildren: Shaniya, Harmony and Nyla.
Now he’s ready to be back with the Sox as part of the grounds crew.