A Death in the Baseball Family (cont.)
Posted: Tuesday September 18, 2007 11:36AM; Updated: Friday September 21, 2007 9:07AM
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."