Posted: Tuesday September 18, 2007 11:36AM; Updated: Friday September 21, 2007 9:07AM|
By S.L. Price
A Death in the Baseball Family
Mike Coolbaugh, the first base coach of Double A Tulsa, was a baseball lifer with an abiding love of the game -- until a foul ball struck him. Since then, people at all levels of the sport have struggled to grasp how and why he died
At first Tino Sanchez figured he had no choice but to quit baseball cold. Would anyone have blamed him if he'd stayed holed up in his hometown of Yauco, Puerto Rico, for the rest of the season? Forever? He'd gone there to be with his wife, Maria, for the birth of their first child, and as they waited he tried to take in the soothing words of friends and family. Come on, Tino, it wasn't your fault. The Colorado Rockies' front office told him not to hurry back, but the game that had been his life kept exerting its pull. So even though the baby -- due to arrive on the same July day they rolled Mike Coolbaugh away in a hearse -- stayed in Maria's belly, and even though his nerves still jangled, Sanchez returned. To the blast-furnace heat of a Texas League afternoon. To the visitors' clubhouse in the Dallas suburb of Frisco. To another dusty dugout, 17 days after he hit the foul ball that killed his coach.
A breeze wafts through the quaint confines of Dr Pepper Ballpark, promising a cool that never comes. Sanchez sits on the far right side of the vinyl-covered bench, three of his Double A Tulsa Drillers teammates hovering. It's 4:42 p.m., more than two hours from the first pitch, but already the same terrifying guilt that had left Sanchez buckled is at work again. In his first game since pulling the line drive that fatally struck the 35-year-old Coolbaugh in the first base coaching box, Sanchez is still getting accustomed to a macho subculture's clumsy stabs at sensitivity, to his bewildering new identity as both perp and victim. No one has yet informed Sanchez that Coolbaugh's older brother, Scott, is at the park today -- and that he's the coach on the mound in a gray T-shirt throwing batting practice for the Frisco RoughRiders.
Scott grooves a pitch, a batter swings and the ball flies into shallow rightfield, toward a cluster of Drillers. "Heads up!" someone shouts, and then two more voices say it again. Sanchez flinches, his gut twisting until he sees the ball plop in the grass. His teammates notice his reaction. They act as if they don't.
"How are you, Tino?" asks one. "Daughter?"
"Not yet," Sanchez says. "And my wife, she's big. She's 40 weeks."
Someone somewhere flips the stadium's speakers on; cheery pop music muffles the grunts and cracks, and for 25 minutes the day seems almost routine. Sanchez is the second man up for Drillers batting practice. Hitting righthanded, he bunts twice, runs to first base. The music stops. Two teenage girls start singing into a microphone next to the stands, practicing The Star-Spangled Banner. Sanchez rounds third base as they harmonize about the flag forever waving, then hops back in the cage. Batting lefty, he pulls a ball foul along the first base line. Everyone tries to ignore that, too.
Sanchez is a utilityman, at 28 the oldest player on the team, so it's no shock that he doesn't start. In the bottom of the first inning he sits in the dugout, gauging whether the coaches are taking their positions farther from home plate. When the RoughRiders' first base coach turns, Sanchez sees the name COOLBAUGH on his back.
"Is that Mike's brother?" he asks a teammate.
"Yeah, that's Scott."
Sanchez had written a letter to Mike's widow, Mandy, and asked a teammate to deliver it at the funeral, but heard nothing back. Now he feels a slight panic: What do I do? What should I say? How will Scott react? But in this dugout, this stadium -- in this world, really -- there's no one who has the answers. In the top of the eighth a Driller is ejected, and manager Stu Cole tells Sanchez to get ready. He has never reached the majors and probably never will. In 11 minor league seasons he has played in games that decided championships, games that seemed vital to his career, games during which he was distracted by family troubles. But nothing like this.
In the bottom of the eighth Sanchez trots out to first base and fields a few grounders. Then the moment he's been dreading comes; before he looks he can feel Scott Coolbaugh walking up the line to the coach's box. The Drillers lead 3-2, and the crowd of 6,853 has thinned. A man eats peanuts; a child sleeps on his mother's shoulder. On any field, anywhere, there could be no more emotionally charged moment than this one, but the fans don't seem to notice. While Coolbaugh takes his position in the box, Sanchez readies himself not 15 feet away. In the Tulsa dugout, two pitchers shake their heads at the eerie sight of two men yoked by tragedy and separated by one thin line of chalk. One of the pitchers thinks, This whole thing is just unreal .
For a moment or two, Sanchez and Coolbaugh are close enough to hear each other whisper. But Coolbaugh doesn't want to distract Sanchez during the game, and Sanchez, with no idea what Scott is thinking, can't stop his mind from racing. He wants to apologize, grieve, console, be consoled, say something, anything. He steals a glance at Mike Coolbaugh's brother. He fields the first out, a pop-up. The bases load, then Frisco ties the game, but Sanchez can't focus. Mostly he looks at the dirt by his feet. The inning ends. The two men run off in different directions without saying a word.
Coolbaugh doesn't go out to the field in the bottom of the ninth. At first that's a relief to Sanchez, but then he wonders if Scott can't bear to be near him, if the Coolbaugh family will ever forgive him, if his future seems doomed to unfold in the space between two unanswerable questions.
"Why me?" Tino Sanchez asks. "Why him?"
News of the accident at Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock generated shock and horror across the nation. Mike Coolbaugh's death in the ninth inning of Tulsa's 7-3 loss to the Arkansas Travelers had every earmark of a freak event, a lightning strike: no way to stop it, no way to explain it. The last fatality caused by a baseball in a professional game -- the pitch that killed Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman in 1920 -- still serves as a cautionary tale of how quickly a toy can turn into a deadly projectile. But in that case the ball had been doctored. Coolbaugh's death seemed more random, a feeling compounded by the presence of three people all too familiar with the impact a ball can have.
Up in the press box and doing color commentary for the Travelers was general manager Bill Valentine, a former major league umpire who, 40 summers before, had been behind the plate in Fenway Park when a fastball from California Angels pitcher Jack Hamilton pulped the face of Boston Red Sox outfielder Tony Conigliaro, damaging Tony C's eyesight forever. Drillers pitching coach Bo McLaughlin had his major league career effectively ended in 1981 when a Harold Baines line drive caved in his left cheek. And two months earlier Tulsa pitcher Jon Asahina suffered a fractured skull and a shattered eardrum when a batter at the same Little Rock park drove a ball into the left side of his head. If the impact had been an inch or two in another direction, Asahina was told by neurosurgeons who viewed his CAT scans, he might not be standing today.
Some observers suggest -- and Asahina insists -- that Coolbaugh, in just his 18th game as a first base coach, was focusing on the lead of Drillers base runner Matt Miller and not on the batter in the second before Sanchez made contact. Inexperience might have been a factor, but one seemingly offset by the fact that Coolbaugh constantly preached about the dangers posed by foul balls. "He was more worried about it than anybody I've ever met," says Mandy. In 2005, when Mike was playing with Triple A Round Rock, he was about to settle into his crouch at third when he noticed Mandy visiting a friend in the seats behind the base. Before the pitcher could wind up, Coolbaugh walked off the field and insisted that she move somewhere safer. "So when people say he was turned the wrong way, I just can't believe it," she says. "He was so aware of what a ball could do. God plucked him. There's no way he would've let a foul ball kill him."
For those closest to Coolbaugh, "God plucked him" is the most palatable explanation for what happened in Little Rock. Within the game itself that Sunday night, so many things had to line up: hits, runs, calls. Heading into the eighth inning the Travelers held a one-run lead, a choice situation for their sidearming closer, righthander Darren O'Day. But Arkansas scored three in the bottom of the inning to erase the save opportunity. Bill Edwards, a more conventional righty, took the mound. Would O'Day have thrown the same pitches as Edwards? No. Would it have mattered?
Miller led off the ninth for Tulsa with a single to right. Up to the plate came Sanchez. Edwards threw three consecutive balls; one more and everyone would be safe. "The 3-0 pitch," recalls Drillers play-by-play man Mark Neely, "was a very borderline strike on the outside corner. I'm not blaming this on the umpire. But with all the strange things that had occurred to get to that moment.... Many times -- though umpires would never say this -- on a 3-0 count the strike zone does expand. That was a perfect example: A borderline pitch on the outside corner that was called a strike and made it 3-1."
It was 8:53 p.m. Coolbaugh leaned over to Miller, standing on first. "We're down a couple runs, so don't get picked off," he said. "Freeze on a line drive." Then Mike Coolbaugh said his last words: "If you're going first to third, you've got to be sure."
Miller took a lead. Edwards brought back his arm. Miller took another step.
A fastball inside, the kind of pitch that always gave Coolbaugh trouble as a hitter. Sanchez, batting lefty, swung a fraction of a second too soon, and the ball blasted off his bat. "A rocket!" Neely shouted into his microphone.
"I don't remember a ball being hit that hard, that fast," says Valentine, who has been working in baseball for 56 years. "He really got every bit of it."
Even though he knew the ball was foul, Sanchez kept watching as it hooked behind first. Coolbaugh threw up his hands as if to defend himself, and tilted his body slightly back.
"It's so crazy," Sanchez says. "It seemed like the ball followed him."
Mike Coolbaugh's baseball career began with an accident. Football was his first love. As a highly touted senior quarterback for San Antonio's Roosevelt High, he was sitting in the locker room when his head coach, hurling a clipboard in what was meant to be a motivational rage, hit him square in the face. His nose deeply gashed, Coolbaugh couldn't wear a helmet and missed vital games; the coach was fired, Coolbaugh's family sued and settled out of court. Recruiters from Texas, LSU and Wisconsin stopped calling. Coolbaugh turned to baseball, became a power-hitting third baseman and was drafted 433rd by the Toronto Blue Jays in 1990.
He spent his first 10 1/2 years bouncing among six organizations: four years in A ball, three in Double A, nearly four in Triple A. He made three All-Star teams, was voted a team MVP, broke the Southern League record for RBIs in a season. He sat and watched as callow talents, bad teammates and, yes, plenty of superior players elbowed past him. Soon Coolbaugh was 29 and thinking his chance at the majors would never come. "Just one day," he would tell Scott. "To get called up for just one day."
God knows, he had worked for it. When Mike was in high school and Scott in college at Texas, teammates had come to work out in the family backyard in San Antonio once or twice, never to return. "Camp Coolbaugh," they dubbed it, and they didn't mean days spent dangling a toe out of a canoe. The boys' dad, Bob, a precision tool-and-die man, was a onetime high school talent from Binghamton, N.Y., who'd turned down an invitation to a New York Yankees tryout because he knew he wasn't good enough. He would make sure his sons never felt that way. The boys loved sports, all sports, but Dad knew baseball, and his rule about playing it was simple: If you won't help yourself by practicing 100%, then you'll help me pull weeds or wash the car -- 100%.
Scott began running a three-mile course at age 12, and when the smaller, wiry six-year-old Mike would bolt ahead of him, Scott would gasp, "Don't you beat me or I'll kick your tail!" Bob set up a pitching machine in the backyard, tinkering with it until it could fire at 110 mph, and each boy would take 300, 400 cuts -- to start the day. Their sisters, Lisa and Linda, were put to use fielding grounders, feeding balls. "Sprint work, running, swinging an ax into a tree stump," Scott says of the workouts. "He'd have us hit into a stump 200 times before we went to bed. We got through the stumps so quick, he dulled the blade. There were a lot of hard times, but it created a work ethic."
Bob couldn't help trying make his young tools ever more precise. If Mike or Scott went 3 for 4, Bob needed to know what went wrong that one at bat. Scott absorbed the constant analysis and prodding quietly, but Mike couldn't. He was hard enough on himself already. "That's what kept those two going," Scott says. "You'd put them in a room together, and they'd argue like they were about to fight, but that's what made their relationship, and they accepted it. They both said their piece and walked away."
Bob will forever be bitter about his boys' small-time careers -- Scott, a corner infielder, played 167 big league games from 1989 through '94 -- certain they were jobbed by the powers that be. Baseball? "A curse on the Coolbaugh family, as far as I'm concerned," Bob says. Mike hit 256 home runs in the minors, and if he agonized over not getting his break, he never resented the good players who got a shot. He could be dour: "A lovable grouch," Astros second baseman Chris Burke, a former minor league teammate, called him. But Coolbaugh's dark moods would always pass. "Listen to me complain," he would say. "Like I've got it bad."
Finally, on the afternoon of July 15, 2001, he got his day. Coolbaugh was heading for the batting cage in Durham, N.C., when Indianapolis Indians manager Wendell Kim stopped him. "I don't think that's a good idea," Kim said. "It wouldn't be good for you to get hurt just before you go to Milwaukee."
Coolbaugh warned him not to joke. "Better get packed," Kim said. "You're going to be late for the plane."
Mandy and Mike had been a couple since 1996 and married since 2000. She knew him to have cried only four times: on their wedding day, on the days their two sons were born and on the day he got called up, after 1,165 games in places like St. Catharines, Ont.; Knoxville, Tenn.; and Huntsville, Ala. "We did it," Mike said in a voicemail, between sobs. "We finally did it. We're going to be up there."
The next day Coolbaugh had a cab drop him at Milwaukee County Stadium at 9 a.m. A security guard told him no one would arrive until 11. He had nowhere to go. So the guard gave him a tour: up and down the concourses in a golf cart, out to the perfect field, into the hushed clubhouse. Coolbaugh found his locker, with a Brewers jersey hanging in it: number 14, his name stitched with care across the back.
He played 39 games with the Brewers. None were as sweet as the first two. In his first at bat, with Mandy in the stands, he smacked a pinch-hit double. The next morning the couple woke to find that Mike's father; his mother, Mary Lu; and his sisters had arrived after an all-night drive from upstate New York. "My dad's here today," Mike told one sportswriter. "I'm going to have a good game." In his second major league at bat he drove a 3 and 1 pitch from the Chicago White Sox' Jon Garland into the leftfield stands and ran around the bases as if it were the most normal thing in the world. The whole Coolbaugh family was crying. "Just that one at bat," Mandy says, "he didn't need anything else."
No, Coolbaugh needed what all competitors need: more. Milwaukee gave him a taste of playing at the pinnacle, with its plush hotel rooms, a $320,000 salary and, most of all, respect. He finished the season with two home runs and a .200 average, and now, it seemed, all those years of work might pay off. Even after the Brewers released him that October, Coolbaugh felt he belonged in the majors. He hooked on with St. Louis the next spring, ravaged Grapefruit League pitching and seemed sure to head west with the Cardinals. Instead, the St. Louis brass opted for the multidimensional, if less productive, Eduardo Perez -- a decision that shocks Perez to this day. When manager Tony La Russa called Coolbaugh over with the news that he was being sent down again, Coolbaugh began to jog away. "You're not going to catch me," he said, laughing outside and groaning within. "This is not going to happen."
But it did. Coolbaugh played five games for St. Louis as a September call-up, hit .083 and would never appear in a major league city again. "To me it's one word: opportunity," says former Houston Astros general manager Tim Purpura. "It just never came for him at the right time. He had the talent. There just wasn't the opening."
It's a truism of minor league ball that anyone who plays it for a long time must be a team guy, good for clubhouse chemistry. Coolbaugh played 17 seasons in the bushes for nine organizations, and no one ever said a harsh word about him. Clubs gave him chances well past his sell-by date. He played in Korea in 2003, got hurt, then surfaced in the Astros' farm system. In '04 he reached Triple A New Orleans, only to get off to a poor start. One night in Omaha he struck out three times, and the team bus passed him walking the 10 miles from ballpark to hotel. "He's got his head down and he's talking to himself," Burke recalls. "Here he is, with a thousand games in his career, but he couldn't handle the fact that he was in a bad rut."
Coolbaugh climbed out and hit 30 home runs that season. It wasn't nearly enough: Morgan Ensberg had a lock on third base in Houston. Coolbaugh was back in Triple A in 2005, hitting 27 homers and driving in 101 runs for Round Rock. "I'm not going to let them beat me," he told Scott. The Astros had every intention of calling him up in September, but in late August, Coolbaugh took an inside pitch on his left hand, breaking a bone. In the spring of '06, on the first day of big league camp with the Kansas City Royals, a fastball shattered his left wrist. He toyed with playing in Mexico this spring but gave it up after a week. His playing career was done.
Still, Coolbaugh wanted to keep his battered hand in. He tried to land a rookie league coaching job with Houston, but execs there felt his demeanor, while fine for seasoned players, might not be right for fresh-faced youngsters. Coolbaugh didn't have, as Burke says, a "warm-and-fuzzy Field of Dreams love of baseball." There were times when Coolbaugh, like any self-respecting player, hated the game for its politics, all the gut-wrenching failure. He took business courses online, but baseball was what he knew; he had a family to feed and a baby on the way. His sons, five-year-old Joseph and four-year-old Jacob, wanted to see him in uniform again. When hitting coach Orlando Merced left Tulsa for personal reasons and the job opened up in May, Mike interviewed and waited -- but didn't say a word about it to Mandy until he actually got hired.
"He didn't want to jinx things," she says. "It felt like we were always being jinxed in his career."
Coolbaugh joined the Drillers on July 4, introducing himself at the batting cage in San Antonio. "I always had trouble getting away from inside pitches," he told the players. The team's hitting improved almost instantly. With his quiet sincerity, Coolbaugh gained the players' trust. "You just felt him," says Asahina. "He had that warrior energy, very stoic. I was very careful: I would only ask him crisp questions. I wanted to let him know I'm not here talking about last night or women in the stands. No: It's baseball."
Here was a guy who wanted them to succeed, like "a family member," says Sanchez, who had worked as the de facto hitting and first base coach before Coolbaugh's arrival. "When somebody got a hit, it was like he got a hit. When somebody struggled, he said, 'Hey, let's do this or that.' " Like Coolbaugh, Sanchez had been victimized by injuries and the numbers game. Like Sanchez, whose daughter, Isabella Sophia, was born on Aug. 18, Coolbaugh was expecting a child -- and was sure it would be a girl. On July 21, the day before he died, Coolbaugh took Sanchez out to lunch at a Mexican restaurant. "We couldn't stop talking about baseball," Sanchez says. "After I told him I was going to have a baby, his face changed. He told me that it's the most beautiful experience I would go through. That's when I knew how much he really loved his family."
The last time Scott Coolbaugh saw his brother, he stopped by Mike's house in San Antonio. Mike had been with the Drillers less than a week. It's really starting to click, he told Scott. They spoke of the Drillers' Aug. 8 game in Frisco, and how cool it would be to face each other on the field again. "I'm looking forward to seeing you," Mike said.
When a bat hits a pitch flush, the ball gains speed. Asahina's sinker ranges from 88 to 91 mph, but a field-level radar gun measured the speed of the ball at 101 mph just before it struck the side of his head. The ball that crushed Bo McLaughlin's cheekbone hit him at 104 mph. McLaughlin has a tape of that game and swears that the microphone hanging from the press box picked up the sound of bones breaking. He needed two operations to reconstruct his face. His left eye socket is wired in five places. McLaughlin lives in Phoenix, and whenever temperatures hit 113° or 114°, the metal gets so hot that the whites of his eyes turn red.
Did Mike Coolbaugh know what hit him? McLaughlin remembers every instant of his accident. Asahina, on the other hand, seems to have experienced a protective amnesia. "I don't recall seeing the ball off the bat or anything else," he says. "It's like something in your deep subconscious says, No, you're not supposed to see this . So I don't."
Eyewitnesses declared that they saw the ball strike Coolbaugh in the temple. But the sound of impact wasn't that of ball on bone; it was more muffled, and a preliminary autopsy released two days later found that the ball hit Coolbaugh about half an inch below and behind his left ear. The impact crushed his left vertebral artery -- which carries blood from the spinal column to the brain -- against the left first cervical vertebra, at the base of Coolbaugh's skull. Squeezed almost literally between a rock and a hard place, the artery burst. A severe brain hemorrhage ensued. Mark Malcolm, the Pulaski County coroner who performed the autopsy, says he's never seen a case like it in his 21 years of work. "Man, that's a one-in-bazillion chance," Malcolm says. "A half a hair in either direction and it wouldn't have killed him."
Coolbaugh fell to his back, his hands landing on either side of his head. Sanchez bolted out of the batter's box and up the first base line, reaching Coolbaugh first. Coolbaugh's eyes were rolling up into his head. His mouth spewed a whitish foam; his body convulsed. Sanchez backed up, sank to his knees and dropped his head into his hands.
The two team trainers and the three doctors who came out of the stands raced to the prone figure. Within seconds Coolbaugh had stopped breathing. He was given oxygen and hooked up to a defibrillator. An ambulance was called, and Cole had Asahina run into the clubhouse, retrieve a trainer's first-aid pack and carry it out to first base. It was the first time Asahina had stepped on a field during a game since his own accident 12 weeks before.
Sanchez was standing now, praying for Coolbaugh to be O.K. He also begged God, Please don't do this to me . Then he heard someone near Coolbaugh say, "Don't go, Mike! Come back!"
The ambulance took him. Though Coolbaugh still had a pulse when he arrived at Baptist Health Medical Center, doctors determined that his life ended at the moment of impact. "He may have heard the crack of the bat, but that's it," Malcolm says. "I think he had no knowledge."
Cole received the news soon after in his office but didn't inform the players until a good 90 minutes later, after he'd been to the hospital and back. In the meantime Sanchez buttonholed everyone he could, asking if they'd heard anything. When the manager finally announced that Coolbaugh was dead, Sanchez started flailing. "I think I fractured my hand here," he says, pointing to the bottom of his right hand, "because I couldn't control it; I started punching everything. I hit the floor. I walked away and I went down, because I couldn't stop myself. I went down."
The phone rang in the Coolbaugh house in San Antonio around 9:15 p.m. Mandy had friends over to watch a movie, and when she saw it was Mike's cellphone, she answered quite appropriately for a pregnant woman whose mile-a-minute boys were finally down for the night. "Mike, you know I have people over here," she said instead of hello. "What do you want?"
The instant she heard the voice of Drillers trainer Austin O'Shea, Mandy knew the news was bad. Mike called himself whenever he got hurt. O'Shea told her only that Mike was at the hospital. He didn't want some insensitive MD telling her out of the blue that her husband was already dead. "You need to come up here," O'Shea said.
But a doctor phoned before she left for Little Rock. For Mandy the rest of the night was a blur. She got up early and saw that reports of Mike's death were on TV; the first camera crew came to her door at 7 a.m. Mandy knew she had to tell the boys quickly. When they woke up, she and Mike's mother sat in their bedroom, with the baseballs listing their birth weight and height, and their dad's Milwaukee and St. Louis jerseys on the wall. Mandy told them Daddy was hit by a ball, and God took him to heaven. "Well, if Daddy's up in heaven now, can I play with his bats?" Joey asked.
Mandy Coolbaugh is still irked by the way she answered the phone that night. But it's just like baseball to leave her with regret on top of grief. "This game will step on your neck and keep stepping on it," Burke says. "But something like this is almost too much to take."
Tino Sanchez kept sinking. There was a five-hour bus ride back to Tulsa, a tearful team meeting the next day, a night of torment in his apartment. He didn't sleep. He turned off his cellphone. Everyone kept repeating that it wasn't his fault. "People don't understand," Sanchez says. "They're still telling me that it was an accident, and that's been very supportive. But whether it was my fault or not, literally I killed a human being."
He would stare off, having clear flashbacks of his lunch with Coolbaugh, of looking to the coach for reassurance during his next-to-last at bat -- every image from the moment they met to when the ambulance rolled away. Too many thoughts: Coolbaugh's family. His sons. His wife, his wife, his wife. Guilt engulfed Sanchez those first 48 hours. He felt as if he were drowning. "Mike is dragging me," he told a friend. "He's taking me with him."
The Rockies sent him home to Yauco. Sanchez began to calm, to sleep. He decided to go back to the Drillers because he felt he owed the organization and his teammates for standing by him, because he wanted to honor baseball and Coolbaugh. When he rejoined the team in Frisco, he almost felt ready.
But then came that strange dance with Scott Coolbaugh at first base, the silence, the guilt flooding back into his gut. The game ended, and as Sanchez was gathering his glove, a teammate pointed to two women along the rail who wanted a word. The stands emptied as he walked to a spot just by the on-deck circle. Scott's wife, Susan, introduced herself and Mike's sister Lisa. Sanchez removed his hat and put out his hand, eyes stinging. Lisa's knees wobbled; she wasn't sure she could speak. Mike had spoken to the family, had said how proud he was of this one player on the team named Tino. She wanted him to know that. She reached out, crying too, and they grabbed each other tight.
It was about 10:30, two strangers touched by mercy. Lisa told Tino that the family was doing well. She said they didn't blame him. She cried again and said they would all get through this together. The stadium lights went dark. And for the first time since Coolbaugh died, Sanchez felt lighter.
He'll never be completely free. "I took his life away," Sanchez says, "and he took a part of my heart with him." But when Scott Coolbaugh stopped Sanchez during batting practice the next afternoon and repeated his sister's words and told him to call whenever he needed, it helped. When Mandy approached him outside the clubhouse in Tulsa in mid-August, it helped even more. That the Coolbaughs could push past their profound pain to comfort -- no, absolve -- him seems like a miracle, proof of grace. "Everything that's got to do with love is God," Sanchez says, "and that was pure love."
They saved him. Of that alone he's sure.
In the baseball world, the reaction to Coolbaugh's death went far beyond what would be expected for a player so obscure. It wasn't just because of the accident's freakish nature. Coolbaugh had played for so many organizations that, for many people, he'd become emblematic of how arbitrary the sport could be. More than $100,000 in donations have poured into the foundation formed to help his family. Not just from fans, but also from major leaguers who know that just one broken hand could have derailed their careers too -- players who fear what Coolbaugh represented. He was the guy who always gets a flat tire on the way to the job interview, the one who never could get a break. He was minor league baseball, and who grew up wanting to be that?
Yet off the field Coolbaugh was an object of envy. He took his two boys with him everywhere, couldn't seem to breathe without holding them. And when O'Shea frantically scrolled through Coolbaugh's cellphone directory that Sunday, it wasn't hard for him to find Mandy's number. He came upon the nickname Gorgeous and knew to hit send.
"As a husband? He was perfect," Mandy says. "He just did everything right. He was the one who made sure we got to church every Sunday, who made sure the kids prayed before every meal, who tucked them in at night. He would leave me surprises everywhere. If he left before me for the season, he would leave handwritten notes, but he would hide them under pillows, in shorts, drawers, suitcases, a book I was reading. Saying things like, 'I'm going to miss you, but we'll be together soon. I love you.' He would call every night no matter how late it was just to tell me he loved me. When we had our kids, he wrote two songs describing our life. I was in labor, and he sat in the hospital and took out a notepad and wrote them down and would sing them to me. He sang all the time."
Mike built the crib and the changing table from scratch and installed the catcher's-mitt light in the boys' room. The only time in 10 years that Mandy and he disagreed, she says, was over the third child. Mandy wanted one, while Mike worried that they couldn't afford another. She figured that the battle was lost, but on the day she learned she was pregnant, he couldn't have been happier. Money would be tight; he didn't care. Tears roll down her face as she speaks of it: Mike always put her first. "But I know you want this," he said.
"So there are days I question it," she says of his death. "Why would God want this to happen to the kids? I have no doubt it would've been easier for everybody if it had been me instead of him, because Mike would know where to go from here. He would know what to do."
He always made the decisions, after all, which is why his behavior this past spring seemed so jarring. Mike turned 35 in June, and indulged in midlife-crisis standards like calling old friends he hadn't spoken to in years. But he also had become fixated on death. Cancer had killed Mandy's mother in 2003, but not until recently had Mike wanted to know details of the moment she passed, how much pain she endured. He talked about buying burial plots for himself and Mandy. He insisted that Mandy, who never even knew his salary, learn how to handle the household finances in case "something happens to me." Just weeks before Little Rock, he spoke about her having a baby after he died. For the first time, too, he wanted her to sit out in the front yard and watch while he showed Joey and Jake how to play baseball. "If something ever happens to me," he said, "I want you to remember how to teach them to hit."
"Mike, you're not playing anymore," Mandy told him. "We're home. Nothing's going to happen to us."
Mike never let the boys mess with his equipment. Now Joey puts on his father's spikes and refuses to take them off. Now he wears his dad's oversized T-shirts all day. One day recently when Joey was hitting the ball, he told Jake, "Get out of the way. I don't want you to get killed." That was about the time he started badgering Mandy about Mike's black bat, the one in the attic. She didn't know what Joey was talking about, but, finally worn down, she climbed up there the night of Aug. 10. Joey followed her and pointed to a black Louisville Slugger. "There it is!" he cried. A scrawl on a piece of masking tape wound around the handle identified it: the bat Mike used for his first major league hit, July 16, 2001.
The next morning Joey stands in the front yard swinging the black bat that's nearly as long as he is tall. His father taught him well. His swing is smooth. He lines the first three pitches 20 feet over the grass.
At times like these, Coolbaugh's death makes almost no sense. It's easy to see the accident as merely a random occurrence. For believers, though, the coincidences, premonitions and precursors are signs of a plan: causal lines and connections revealed only after the fact, like a spiderweb after rain.
Or maybe it's nothing so grandiose. Mandy mentions all the tributes from Mike's peers, the hundreds of e-mails from around the world, the fact that the Drillers have retired his jersey. "If he went out any other way, would he have gotten all the respect he has from this?" she asks. "If he was in a car crash? When he wasn't called back to play, he said, 'I put in so many good years. I wish I could at least have the respect that I was a good player.' And by dying on the field, he did."
Now a DVD tribute is playing on the TV, and she's identifying the images as they fade in and out: Mike with his grandfather, Mike and Mandy mugging in a photo booth, Mike and Mandy dancing at their wedding, the last family photo, Mike's first home run, Mike walking in the surf with his sons. "His last day with the kids," she says. "He took us to Corpus Christi beach. Then he took a long walk with me. He hated sand between his toes, but he wanted to take a long walk. We walked for about an hour, the kids running in front."
It seems a brutal trade: A husband and father dies prematurely in return for a little respect. Mike Coolbaugh's wife, expecting a third child in October, is alone. His sons cling to empty clothes and the fading echo of a summer sea. Who can say why? It will have to be enough to know that in the most obscure corners, compassion lives and success has nothing to do with fame or money or even greatness. It will have to be enough to understand that such a notion is easy to forget, until a good man's dying forces the world to pay attention at last.