AT FIRST Tino
Sanchez figured he had no choice but to quit baseball cold. Would anyone have
blamed him if he'd stayed holed up in his hometown of Yauco, Puerto Rico, for
the rest of the season? Forever? He'd gone there to be with his wife, Maria,
for the birth of their first child, and as they waited he tried to take in the
soothing words of friends and family. Come on, Tino, it wasn't your fault. The
Colorado Rockies' front office told him not to hurry back, but the game that
had been his life kept exerting its pull. So even though the baby—due to arrive
on the same July day they rolled Mike Coolbaugh away in a hearse—stayed in
Maria's belly, and even though his nerves still jangled, Sanchez returned. To
the blast-furnace heat of a Texas League afternoon. To the visitors' clubhouse
in the Dallas suburb of Frisco. To another dusty dugout, 17 days after he hit
the foul ball that killed his coach.
A breeze wafts
through the quaint confines of Dr Pepper Ballpark, promising a cool that never
comes. Sanchez sits on the far right side of the vinyl-covered bench, three of
his Double A Tulsa Drillers teammates hovering. It's 4:42 p.m., more than two
hours from the first pitch, but already the same terrifying guilt that had left
Sanchez buckled is at work again. In his first game since pulling the line
drive that fatally struck the 35-year-old Coolbaugh in the first base coaching
box, Sanchez is still getting accustomed to a macho subculture's clumsy stabs
at sensitivity, to his bewildering new identity as both perp and victim. No one
has yet informed Sanchez that Coolbaugh's older brother, Scott, is at the park
today—and that he's the coach on the mound in a gray T-shirt throwing batting
practice for the Frisco RoughRiders.
Scott grooves a
pitch, a batter swings and the ball flies into shallow rightfield, toward a
cluster of Drillers. "Heads up!" someone shouts, and then two more
voices say it again. Sanchez flinches, his gut twisting until he sees the ball
plop in the grass. His teammates notice his reaction. They act as if they
"How are you,
Tino?" asks one. "Daughter?"
Sanchez says. "And my wife, she's big. She's 40 weeks."
flips the stadium's speakers on; cheery pop music muffles the grunts and
cracks, and for 25 minutes the day seems almost routine. Sanchez is the second
man up for Drillers batting practice. Hitting righthanded, he bunts twice, runs
to first base. The music stops. Two teenage girls start singing into a
microphone next to the stands, practicing The Star-Spangled Banner. Sanchez
rounds third base as they harmonize about the flag forever waving, then hops
back in the cage. Batting lefty, he pulls a ball foul along the first base
line. Everyone tries to ignore that, too.
Sanchez is a
utilityman, at 28 the oldest player on the team, so it's no shock that he
doesn't start. In the bottom of the first inning he sits in the dugout, gauging
whether the coaches are taking their positions farther from home plate. When
the RoughRiders' first base coach turns, Sanchez sees the name COOLBAUGH on his
Mike's brother?" he asks a teammate.
written a letter to Mike's widow, Mandy, and asked a teammate to deliver it at
the funeral, but heard nothing back. Now he feels a slight panic: What do I do?
What should I say? How will Scott react? But in this dugout, this stadium—in
this world, really—there's no one who has the answers. In the top of the eighth
a Driller is ejected, and manager Stu Cole tells Sanchez to get ready. He has
never reached the majors and probably never will. In 11 minor league seasons he
has played in games that decided championships, games that seemed vital to his
career, games during which he was distracted by family troubles. But nothing