- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
"Mike, you're not playing anymore," Mandy told him. "We're home. Nothing's going to happen to us."
Mike never let the boys mess with his equipment. Now Joey puts on his father's spikes and refuses to take them off. Now he wears his dad's oversized T-shirts all day. One day recently when Joey was hitting the ball, he told Jake, "Get out of the way. I don't want you to get killed." That was about the time he started badgering Mandy about Mike's black bat, the one in the attic. She didn't know what Joey was talking about, but, finally worn down, she climbed up there the night of Aug. 10. Joey followed her and pointed to a black Louisville Slugger. "There it is!" he cried. A scrawl on a piece of masking tape wound around the handle identified it: the bat Mike used for his first major league hit, July 16, 2001.
The next morning Joey stands in the front yard swinging the black bat that's nearly as long as he is tall. His father taught him well. His swing is smooth. He lines the first three pitches 20 feet over the grass.
AT TIMES like these, Coolbaugh's death makes almost no sense. It's easy to see the accident as merely a random occurrence. For believers, though, the coincidences, premonitions and precursors are signs of a plan: causal lines and connections revealed only after the fact, like a spiderweb after rain.
Or maybe it's nothing so grandiose. Mandy mentions all the tributes from Mike's peers, the hundreds of e-mails from around the world, the fact that the Drillers have retired his jersey. "If he went out any other way, would he have gotten all the respect he has from this?" she asks. "If he was in a car crash? When he wasn't called back to play, he said, 'I put in so many good years. I wish I could at least have the respect that I was a good player.' And by dying on the field, he did."
Now a DVD tribute is playing on the TV, and she's identifying the images as they fade in and out: Mike with his grandfather, Mike and Mandy mugging in a photo booth, Mike and Mandy dancing at their wedding, the last family photo, Mike's first home run, Mike walking in the surf with his sons. "His last day with the kids," she says. "He took us to Corpus Christi beach. Then he took a long walk with me. He hated sand between his toes, but he wanted to take a long walk. We walked for about an hour, the kids running in front."
It seems a brutal trade: A husband and father dies prematurely in return for a little respect. Mike Coolbaugh's wife, expecting a third child in October, is alone. His sons cling to empty clothes and the fading echo of a summer sea. Who can say why? It will have to be enough to know that in the most obscure corners, compassion lives and success has nothing to do with fame or money or even greatness. It will have to be enough to understand that such a notion is easy to forget, until a good man's dying forces the world to pay attention at last.