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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.