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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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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 hit SEND.

"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 time."

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."

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