Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 3. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer. For more essays, click here.
The best part? Maybe it's how quiet they were about it.
We all know what year-end awards like Sportsman of the Year usually celebrate: Great deeds performed on the biggest stages. Super Bowl champions, Olympians, men and women responding under the brightest of lights to produce a result that astonishes. You know: Ali, Jordan, Tiger. The type that achieve something so big, so compelling, so loud it drowns out all surrounding hype and every bit of competition. The sheer volume of their greatness is impossible to deny.
But this year's rightful Sportsmen are nothing like that. They lost the 2007 World Series, first of all. And, really, what they did has nothing to do with sports.
On Oct. 4, Colorado Rockies manager Clint Hurdle told the press his players had voted to give a full share of their playoff winnings -- a figure that eventually grew to $233,505.18 -- to the family of Mike Coolbaugh, the 35-year old first base coach for the organization's AA club who was killed after being struck by a foul ball on July 22. Baseball was gearing up for its usually fevered postseason that day, with TV and radio commentators and hundreds of writers and bloggers dissecting every aspect of every off-day, every play, every human reaction. Yet it remains unclear how the Rockies' decision came about: No one outside the team knows what the room looked like, where the players sat or stood, if anyone cried. Like any true act of greatness, this one retains a bit of mystery.
After Hurdle's revelation, the players refused to fall into the hands of a media horde desperate to give the story its proper due. Who first had the idea to give the money to Mike's pregnant widow, Mandy, and her young sons Joey and Jake? Word was that player representative Josh Fogg suggested it, but he wouldn't take credit. Everyone involved stripped their utterances to the barest bones, refusing to elaborate. "I don't know who brought it up," said Rockies first baseman Todd Helton at the time. "But once it was brought up it was a done deal."
"It was a team decision," said outfielder Matt Holliday. "It was the right thing to do."
You could almost feel the unspoken imperative seeping through their answers: Don't ask. Leave it alone. The subject was too serious, the loss too horrific to trivialize with a sound bite, some lame attempt at answering the question we journalists love: Why?
Ballplayers are notoriously cheap, especially with playoff shares, and the '07 Rockies ranked 25th out of 30 in team payroll. Few, if any, of the Colorado players had actually met Coolbaugh; he had been a member of the Rockies organization for three weeks before dying on that field in Little Rock, Ark. Yet, if they didn't know him personally, the Rockies knew him well -- or at least what he represented.
A 17-year baseball lifer who had played just 44 games in the major leagues, who had seen nearly every opportunity at the bigs derailed by a freak injury or the dreaded numbers game, Coolbaugh was a symbol of the fate they all had avoided in realizing their dreams. That he then became the sport's most notorious victim since 1920 -- when Ray Chapman died after being beaned in head -- and that he then left behind a family of enviable solidity only made the heartbreak that much more searing.
On the evening of Oct. 1, Mandy Coolbaugh turned on the television in her San Antonio home to watch a baseball game. She was like millions of others that night, and like no one else at all. "I hadn't watched since Mike was killed," Mandy said.
But she had reason again: The Colorado Rockies needed to win that play-in game against the San Diego Padres for the right to move onto the National League Division Series, and the organization had sent word her two sons, 5-year-old Joey and 4-year-old Jake, would throw out the ceremonial first pitch of their first home game if the Rockies made the playoffs. Colorado won that play-in game, beating San Diego in 13 innings to begin its playoff run, her phone ringing throughout as family and friends called in to cheer the boys on. Mike never made it to the playoffs, you see.
A few days later, Mandy learned about the players' vote.
"For the team to do something of this magnitude shows such great generosity," Mandy said. "Turn on the news and all you hear about is people doing hateful things to each other. Then you hear about these guys taking so much out to give to us, and it reminds you that there's so much good in the world."
Can you name any other team, or superstar, who did that this year?
Agree with this selection? Give us your pick for Sportsman here.