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A Death in the Baseball Family
September 24, 2007
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
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September 24, 2007

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

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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."

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