But then came that
strange dance with Scott Coolbaugh at first base, the silence, the guilt
flooding back into his gut. The game ended, and as Sanchez was gathering his
glove, a teammate pointed to two women along the rail who wanted a word. The
stands emptied as he walked to a spot just by the on-deck circle. Scott's wife,
Susan, introduced herself and Mike's sister Lisa. Sanchez removed his hat and
put out his hand, eyes stinging. Lisa's knees wobbled; she wasn't sure she
could speak. Mike had spoken to the family, had said how proud he was of this
one player on the team named Tino. She wanted him to know that. She reached
out, crying too, and they grabbed each other tight.
It was about
10:30, two strangers touched by mercy. Lisa told Tino that the family was doing
well. She said they didn't blame him. She cried again and said they would all
get through this together. The stadium lights went dark. And for the first time
since Coolbaugh died, Sanchez felt lighter.
He'll never be
completely free. "I took his life away," Sanchez says, "and he took
a part of my heart with him." But when Scott Coolbaugh stopped Sanchez
during batting practice the next afternoon and repeated his sister's words and
told him to call whenever he needed, it helped. When Mandy approached him
outside the clubhouse in Tulsa in mid-August, it helped even more. That the
Coolbaughs could push past their profound pain to comfort—no, absolve—him seems
like a miracle, proof of grace. "Everything that's got to do with love is
God," Sanchez says, "and that was pure love."
They saved him. Of
that alone he's sure.
IN THE BASEBALL
world, the reaction to Coolbaugh's death went far beyond what would be expected
for a player so obscure. It wasn't just because of the accident's freakish
nature. Coolbaugh had played for so many organizations that, for many people,
he'd become emblematic of how arbitrary the sport could be. More than $100,000
in donations have poured into the foundation formed to help his family. Not
just from fans, but also from major leaguers who know that just one broken hand
could have derailed their careers too—players who fear what Coolbaugh
represented. He was the guy who always gets a flat tire on the way to the job
interview, the one who never could get a break. He was minor league baseball,
and who grew up wanting to be that?
Yet off the field
Coolbaugh was an object of envy. He took his two boys with him everywhere,
couldn't seem to breathe without holding them. And when O'Shea frantically
scrolled through Coolbaugh's cellphone directory that Sunday, it wasn't hard
for him to find Mandy's number. He came upon the nickname Gorgeous and knew to
"As a husband?
He was perfect," Mandy says. "He just did everything right. He was the
one who made sure we got to church every Sunday, who made sure the kids prayed
before every meal, who tucked them in at night. He would leave me surprises
everywhere. If he left before me for the season, he would leave handwritten
notes, but he would hide them under pillows, in shorts, drawers, suitcases, a
book I was reading. Saying things like, 'I'm going to miss you, but we'll be
together soon. I love you.' He would call every night no matter how late it was
just to tell me he loved me. When we had our kids, he wrote two songs
describing our life. I was in labor, and he sat in the hospital and took out a
notepad and wrote them down and would sing them to me. He sang all the
Mike built the
crib and the changing table from scratch and installed the catcher's-mitt light
in the boys' room. The only time in 10 years that Mandy and he disagreed, she
says, was over the third child. Mandy wanted one, while Mike worried that they
couldn't afford another. She figured that the battle was lost, but on the day
she learned she was pregnant, he couldn't have been happier. Money would be
tight; he didn't care. Tears roll down her face as she speaks of it: Mike
always put her first. "But I know you want this," he said.
"So there are
days I question it," she says of his death. "Why would God want this to
happen to the kids? I have no doubt it would've been easier for everybody if it
had been me instead of him, because Mike would know where to go from here. He
would know what to do."
He always made the
decisions, after all, which is why his behavior this past spring seemed so
jarring. Mike turned 35 in June, and indulged in midlife-crisis standards like
calling old friends he hadn't spoken to in years. But he also had become
fixated on death. Cancer had killed Mandy's mother in 2003, but not until
recently had Mike wanted to know details of the moment she passed, how much
pain she endured. He talked about buying burial plots for himself and Mandy. He
insisted that Mandy, who never even knew his salary, learn how to handle the
household finances in case "something happens to me." Just weeks before
Little Rock, he spoke about her having a baby after he died. For the first
time, too, he wanted her to sit out in the front yard and watch while he showed
Joey and Jake how to play baseball. "If something ever happens to me,"
he said, "I want you to remember how to teach them to hit."