Extra MustardSI On CampusFantasyPhoto GalleriesSwimsuitVideoFanNationSI KidsTNT

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

Posted: Tuesday September 18, 2007 11:36AM; Updated: Friday September 21, 2007 9:07AM
Print ThisE-mail ThisFree E-mail AlertsSave ThisMost PopularRSS Aggregators
In San Antonio, Mandy asks why Joey (left) and Jake have had to endure the  loss of their father.
In San Antonio, Mandy asks why Joey (left) and Jake have had to endure the loss of their father.
Darren Carroll/SI

By S.L. Price

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 .

1 of 9