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But if professional baseball is protected from legal action because of the 145-word warning on the back of each ticket that shifts all responsibility for injury to the fan, it doesn't lessen the danger. "Somebody's going to get hurt," says Hamilton, the pitcher who beaned Conigliaro. "Somebody's going to get hit with one of those broken bats, too, before long." Indeed, since baseball's Safety and Health Advisory Committee was reconstituted in 2008, all of its time—and some $500,000—has been spent studying the increasing trend of bats splintering into dangerous flying shards. "The foul-ball issue has not been discussed," Halem says.
Veteran ballplayers, though, think about it constantly, and many insist that their loved ones sit behind protective netting. First baseman Alan Zinter, who retired in 2007 after playing nearly all of his 19-year career in the minor leagues, took it a step further; he urged complete strangers to sit behind the screen. "I've seen people get hit in the face, just crushed, blood everywhere," Zinter says. "The worst thing I saw was in Nashville: I was hitting lefthanded and I check-swinged and hit a line shot over the dugout that hit a six-year-old boy right in the temple. It was slow motion for me; I'm looking right down the barrel and thinking, Oh, God, and it's heading right toward this family, and the father's not even watching. The kid was looking into leftfield, so he's not watching, and whack! Right in the head. They carried him out of the stadium.
"I couldn't even concentrate after that. I struck out. I kept calling after the game. Kid was in the hospital, and they said he's going to be O.K. Had a concussion, stayed that night. I said, 'Give me his number,' and I ended up calling him when I made it to the big leagues [later that season]." Zinter pauses, watching the moment unreel again in his mind. "His dad ran him up the steps...."
ON MARCH 4, 2007, Mike Coolbaugh and his close friend Jay Maldonado walked onto the field at Theodore Roosevelt High in San Antonio. They'd both been baseball stars there in the late 1980s, but this was no exercise in nostalgia. After 17 years in the minor leagues, Coolbaugh's playing options had seemingly dried up, but an offer had suddenly come from a professional team in Tabasco, Mexico: $10,000 just to show up and try out. Coolbaugh needed to get ready, and Maldonado had come to help; he could still roll out of bed and throw 88 mph.
Coolbaugh was one of those players who feared that his wife or children would get hit by a baseball ripped into the stands. "He was more worried about it than anybody I've ever met," says his wife, Mandy. "He was so aware of what a foul ball could do."
Maldonado and Coolbaugh set up the protective L screen in the grass in front of the pitcher's mound. Maldonado began to throw—slurves, changeups and fastballs, mixing location in and out. His dad, Jesse, who had come along to watch, stood behind home plate, fingers curling through the backstop fencing. The righthanded Maldonado fired one 87-mph fastball and got a bit lazy, stopping on his follow-through so that his head didn't dip behind the high part of the screen. Coolbaugh swung. The ball blazed just over the inside corner of the L. Maldonado saw a flash of white in time to turn his head, and he felt a crack behind his right ear. He dropped to the ground like a sack of stones.
At first Jesse thought his son was gone. Finally Jay sat up, fighting to stay conscious by fixing his eyes on the fence, the bat, Coolbaugh's stricken face—anything. He and Coolbaugh then sat on a bench, their breathing slowly returning to normal.
The wound left a sizable bruise, but Maldonado refused to see a doctor. Coolbaugh went home that night worried. He always paced when something upset him, and he kept it up that night after telling Mandy what happened, fighting back tears. "That can kill a guy," he said.
THE MEXICO tryout didn't lead to a job, but later that season Coolbaugh landed with the Tulsa Drillers as a first base coach. On July 22, 2007, after only 2½ weeks in that position, Coolbaugh was struck in the back of the neck by a foul ball during a game at Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock, Ark., and died almost instantly. He was 35.
In the park that night were several people who had experienced the harm a thrown or batted ball can do. Bo McLaughlin watched from the top step of the Drillers' dugout. Bill Valentine watched from the park's broadcast booth. Warren Stephens watched from his luxury box behind home plate. Tulsa pitcher Jon Asahina, whose skull had been fractured by a batted ball on the same field three months earlier, watched from the dugout. And 28-year-old Tino Sanchez, whose father had seen a ball kill a man years before, who himself had hit Rockies manager Clint Hurdle in the face with a ball during spring training in 2003, cracked the line drive that left Coolbaugh dead of a crushed left vertebral artery.