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A Death in the Baseball Family
S.L. PRICE
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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Sanchez was standing now, praying for Coolbaugh to be O.K. He also begged God, Please don't do this to me. Then he heard someone near Coolbaugh say, "Don't go, Mike! Come back!"

The ambulance took him. Though Coolbaugh still had a pulse when he arrived at Baptist Health Medical Center, doctors determined that his life ended at the moment of impact. "He may have heard the crack of the bat, but that's it," Malcolm says. "I think he had no knowledge."

Cole received the news soon after in his office but didn't inform the players until a good 90 minutes later, after he'd been to the hospital and back. In the meantime Sanchez buttonholed everyone he could, asking if they'd heard anything. When the manager finally announced that Coolbaugh was dead, Sanchez started flailing. "I think I fractured my hand here," he says, pointing to the bottom of his right hand, "because I couldn't control it; I started punching everything. I hit the floor. I walked away and I went down, because I couldn't stop myself. I went down."

The phone rang in the Coolbaugh house in San Antonio around 9:15 p.m. Mandy had friends over to watch a movie, and when she saw it was Mike's cellphone, she answered quite appropriately for a pregnant woman whose mile-a-minute boys were finally down for the night. "Mike, you know I have people over here," she said instead of hello. "What do you want?"

The instant she heard the voice of Drillers trainer Austin O'Shea, Mandy knew the news was bad. Mike called himself whenever he got hurt. O'Shea told her only that Mike was at the hospital. He didn't want some insensitive MD telling her out of the blue that her husband was already dead. "You need to come up here," O'Shea said.

But a doctor phoned before she left for Little Rock. For Mandy the rest of the night was a blur. She got up early and saw that reports of Mike's death were on TV; the first camera crew came to her door at 7 a.m. Mandy knew she had to tell the boys quickly. When they woke up, she and Mike's mother sat in their bedroom, with the baseballs listing their birth weight and height, and their dad's Milwaukee and St. Louis jerseys on the wall. Mandy told them Daddy was hit by a ball, and God took him to heaven. "Well, if Daddy's up in heaven now, can I play with his bats?" Joey asked.

Mandy Coolbaugh is still irked by the way she answered the phone that night. But it's just like baseball to leave her with regret on top of grief. "This game will step on your neck and keep stepping on it," Burke says. "But something like this is almost too much to take."

TINO SANCHEZ kept sinking. There was a five-hour bus ride back to Tulsa, a tearful team meeting the next day, a night of torment in his apartment. He didn't sleep. He turned off his cellphone. Everyone kept repeating that it wasn't his fault. "People don't understand," Sanchez says. "They're still telling me that it was an accident, and that's been very supportive. But whether it was my fault or not, literally I killed a human being."

He would stare off, having clear flashbacks of his lunch with Coolbaugh, of looking to the coach for reassurance during his next-to-last at bat—every image from the moment they met to when the ambulance rolled away. Too many thoughts: Coolbaugh's family.His sons. His wife, his wife, his wife. Guilt engulfed Sanchez those first 48 hours. He felt as if he were drowning. "Mike is dragging me," he told a friend. "He's taking me with him."

The Rockies sent him home to Yauco. Sanchez began to calm, to sleep. He decided to go back to the Drillers because he felt he owed the organization and his teammates for standing by him, because he wanted to honor baseball and Coolbaugh. When he rejoined the team in Frisco, he almost felt ready.

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