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."
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
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
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."
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."
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.