A Death in the Baseball Family

Sept. 24, 2007
Sept. 24, 2007

Table of Contents
Sept. 24, 2007

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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

AT FIRST TinoSanchez figured he had no choice but to quit baseball cold. Would anyone haveblamed him if he'd stayed holed up in his hometown of Yauco, Puerto Rico, forthe 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 thesoothing words of friends and family. Come on, Tino, it wasn't your fault. TheColorado Rockies' front office told him not to hurry back, but the game thathad been his life kept exerting its pull. So even though the baby—due to arriveon the same July day they rolled Mike Coolbaugh away in a hearse—stayed inMaria's belly, and even though his nerves still jangled, Sanchez returned. Tothe blast-furnace heat of a Texas League afternoon. To the visitors' clubhousein the Dallas suburb of Frisco. To another dusty dugout, 17 days after he hitthe foul ball that killed his coach.

This is an article from the Sept. 24, 2007 issue

A breeze waftsthrough the quaint confines of Dr Pepper Ballpark, promising a cool that nevercomes. Sanchez sits on the far right side of the vinyl-covered bench, three ofhis Double A Tulsa Drillers teammates hovering. It's 4:42 p.m., more than twohours from the first pitch, but already the same terrifying guilt that had leftSanchez buckled is at work again. In his first game since pulling the linedrive that fatally struck the 35-year-old Coolbaugh in the first base coachingbox, Sanchez is still getting accustomed to a macho subculture's clumsy stabsat sensitivity, to his bewildering new identity as both perp and victim. No onehas yet informed Sanchez that Coolbaugh's older brother, Scott, is at the parktoday—and that he's the coach on the mound in a gray T-shirt throwing battingpractice for the Frisco RoughRiders.

Scott grooves apitch, a batter swings and the ball flies into shallow rightfield, toward acluster of Drillers. "Heads up!" someone shouts, and then two morevoices say it again. Sanchez flinches, his gut twisting until he sees the ballplop in the grass. His teammates notice his reaction. They act as if theydon't.

"How are you,Tino?" asks one. "Daughter?"

"Not yet,"Sanchez says. "And my wife, she's big. She's 40 weeks."

Someone somewhereflips the stadium's speakers on; cheery pop music muffles the grunts andcracks, and for 25 minutes the day seems almost routine. Sanchez is the secondman up for Drillers batting practice. Hitting righthanded, he bunts twice, runsto first base. The music stops. Two teenage girls start singing into amicrophone next to the stands, practicing The Star-Spangled Banner. Sanchezrounds third base as they harmonize about the flag forever waving, then hopsback in the cage. Batting lefty, he pulls a ball foul along the first baseline. Everyone tries to ignore that, too.

Sanchez is autilityman, at 28 the oldest player on the team, so it's no shock that hedoesn't start. In the bottom of the first inning he sits in the dugout, gaugingwhether the coaches are taking their positions farther from home plate. Whenthe RoughRiders' first base coach turns, Sanchez sees the name COOLBAUGH on hisback.

"Is thatMike's brother?" he asks a teammate.

"Yeah, that'sScott."

Sanchez hadwritten a letter to Mike's widow, Mandy, and asked a teammate to deliver it atthe 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—inthis world, really—there's no one who has the answers. In the top of the eightha Driller is ejected, and manager Stu Cole tells Sanchez to get ready. He hasnever reached the majors and probably never will. In 11 minor league seasons hehas played in games that decided championships, games that seemed vital to hiscareer, games during which he was distracted by family troubles. But nothinglike this.

In the bottom ofthe eighth Sanchez trots out to first base and fields a few grounders. Then themoment he's been dreading comes; before he looks he can feel Scott Coolbaughwalking up the line to the coach's box. The Drillers lead 3--2, and the crowdof 6,853 has thinned. A man eats peanuts; a child sleeps on his mother'sshoulder. On any field, anywhere, there could be no more emotionally chargedmoment than this one, but the fans don't seem to notice. While Coolbaugh takeshis position in the box, Sanchez readies himself not 15 feet away. In the Tulsadugout, two pitchers shake their heads at the eerie sight of two men yoked bytragedy and separated by one thin line of chalk. One of the pitchers thinks,This whole thing is just unreal.

For a moment ortwo, Sanchez and Coolbaugh are close enough to hear each other whisper. ButCoolbaugh doesn't want to distract Sanchez during the game, and Sanchez, withno idea what Scott is thinking, can't stop his mind from racing. He wants toapologize, grieve, console, be consoled, say something, anything. He steals aglance at Mike Coolbaugh's brother. He fields the first out, a pop-up. Thebases load, then Frisco ties the game, but Sanchez can't focus. Mostly he looksat the dirt by his feet. The inning ends. The two men run off in differentdirections without saying a word.

Coolbaugh doesn'tgo out to the field in the bottom of the ninth. At first that's a relief toSanchez, but then he wonders if Scott can't bear to be near him, if theCoolbaugh family will ever forgive him, if his future seems doomed to unfold inthe space between two unanswerable questions.

"Why me?"Tino Sanchez asks. "Why him?"

NEWS OF theaccident at Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock generated shock andhorror across the nation. Mike Coolbaugh's death in the ninth inning of Tulsa's7-3 loss to the Arkansas Travelers had every earmark of a freak event, alightning strike: no way to stop it, no way to -explain it. The last fatalitycaused by a baseball in a professional game—the pitch that killed ClevelandIndians shortstop Ray Chapman in 1920—still serves as a cautionary tale of howquickly a toy can turn into a deadly projectile. But in that case the ball hadbeen doctored. Coolbaugh's death seemed more random, a feeling compounded bythe presence of three people all too familiar with the impact a ball canhave.

Up in the pressbox and doing color commentary for the Travelers was general manager BillValentine, a former major league umpire who, 40 summers before, had been behindthe plate in Fenway Park when a fastball from California Angels pitcher JackHamilton pulped the face of Boston Red Sox outfielder Tony Conigliaro, damagingTony C's eyesight forever. Drillers pitching coach Bo McLaughlin had his majorleague career effectively ended in 1981 when a Harold Baines line drive cavedin his left cheek. And two months earlier Tulsa pitcher Jon Asahina suffered afractured skull and a shattered eardrum when a batter at the same Little Rockpark drove a ball into the left side of his head. If the impact had been aninch or two in another direction, Asahina was told by neurosurgeons who viewedhis CAT scans, he might not be standing today.

Some observerssuggest—and Asahina insists—that Coolbaugh, in just his 18th game as a firstbase coach, was focusing on the lead of Drillers base runner Matt Miller andnot on the batter in the second before Sanchez made contact. Inexperience mighthave been a factor, but one seemingly offset by the fact that Coolbaughconstantly preached about the dangers posed by foul balls. "He was moreworried about it than anybody I've ever met," says Mandy. In 2005, whenMike was playing with Triple A Round Rock, he was about to settle into hiscrouch at third when he noticed Mandy visiting a friend in the seats behind thebase. Before the pitcher could wind up, Coolbaugh walked off the field andinsisted that she move somewhere safer. "So when people say he was turnedthe wrong way, I just can't believe it," she says. "He was so aware ofwhat a ball could do. God plucked him. There's no way he would've let a foulball kill him."

For those closestto Coolbaugh, "God plucked him" is the most palatable explanation forwhat happened in Little Rock. Within the game itself that Sunday night, so manythings had to line up: hits, runs, calls. Heading into the eighth inning theTravelers held a one-run lead, a choice situation for their sidearming closer,righthander Darren O'Day. But Arkansas scored three in the bottom of the inningto erase the save opportunity. Bill Edwards, a more conventional righty, tookthe mound. Would O'Day have thrown the same pitches as Edwards? No. Would ithave mattered?

Miller led off theninth for Tulsa with a single to right. Up to the plate came Sanchez. Edwardsthrew three consecutive balls; one more and everyone would be safe. "The3--0 pitch," recalls Drillers play-by-play man Mark Neely, "was a veryborderline strike on the outside corner. I'm not blaming this on the umpire.But with all the strange things that had occurred to get to that moment....Many times—though umpires would never say this—on a 3--0 count the strike zonedoes expand. That was a perfect example: A borderline pitch on the outsidecorner that was called a strike and made it 3--1."

It was 8:53 p.m.Coolbaugh leaned over to Miller, standing on first. "We're down a coupleruns, so don't get picked off," he said. "Freeze on a line drive."Then Mike Coolbaugh said his last words: "If you're going first to third,you've got to be sure."

Miller took alead. Edwards brought back his arm. Miller took another step.

A fastball inside,the kind of pitch that always gave Coolbaugh trouble as a hitter. Sanchez,batting lefty, swung a fraction of a second too soon, and the ball blasted offhis bat. "A rocket!" Neely shouted into his microphone.

"I don'tremember a ball being hit that hard, that fast," says Valentine, who hasbeen working in baseball for 56 years. "He really got every bit ofit."

Even though heknew the ball was foul, Sanchez kept watching as it hooked behind first.Coolbaugh threw up his hands as if to defend himself, and tilted his bodyslightly back.

"It's socrazy," Sanchez says. "It seemed like the ball followed him."

MIKE COOLBAUGH'Sbaseball career began with an accident. Football was his first love. As ahighly touted senior quarterback for San Antonio's Roosevelt High, he wassitting in the locker room when his head coach, hurling a clipboard in what wasmeant to be a motivational rage, hit him square in the face. His nose deeplygashed, Coolbaugh couldn't wear a helmet and missed vital games; the coach wasfired, Coolbaugh's family sued and settled out of court. Recruiters from Texas,LSU and Wisconsin stopped calling. Coolbaugh turned to baseball, became apower-hitting third baseman and was drafted 433rd by the Toronto Blue Jays in1990.

He spent his first10 1/2 years bouncing among six organizations: four years in A ball, three inDouble A, nearly four in Triple A. He made three All-Star teams, was voted ateam MVP, broke the Southern League record for RBIs in a season. He sat andwatched as callow talents, bad teammates and, yes, plenty of superior playerselbowed past him. Soon Coolbaugh was 29 and thinking his chance at the majorswould never come. "Just one day," he would tell Scott. "To getcalled up for just one day."

God knows, he hadworked for it. When Mike was in high school and Scott in college at Texas,teammates had come to work out in the family backyard in San Antonio once ortwice, never to return. "Camp Coolbaugh," they dubbed it, and theydidn't mean days spent dangling a toe out of a canoe. The boys' dad, Bob, aprecision tool-and-die man, was a onetime high school talent from Binghamton,N.Y., who'd turned down an invitation to a New York Yankees tryout because heknew he wasn't good enough. He would make sure his sons never felt that way.The boys loved sports, all sports, but Dad knew baseball, and his rule aboutplaying it was simple: If you won't help yourself by practicing 100%, thenyou'll help me pull weeds or wash the car—100%.

Scott beganrunning a three-mile course at age 12, and when the smaller, wiry six-year-oldMike would bolt ahead of him, Scott would gasp, "Don't you beat me or I'llkick your tail!" Bob set up a pitching machine in the backyard, tinkeringwith it until it could fire at 110 mph, and each boy would take 300, 400cuts—to start the day. Their sisters, Lisa and Linda, were put to use fieldinggrounders, feeding balls. "Sprint work, running, swinging an ax into a treestump," Scott says of the workouts. "He'd have us hit into a stump 200times before we went to bed. We got through the stumps so quick, he dulled theblade. There were a lot of hard times, but it created a work ethic."

Bob couldn't helptrying make his young tools ever more precise. If Mike or Scott went 3 for 4,Bob needed to know what went wrong that one at bat. Scott absorbed the constantanalysis and prodding quietly, but Mike couldn't. He was hard enough on himselfalready. "That's what kept those two going," Scott says. "You'd putthem in a room together, and they'd argue like they were about to fight, butthat's what made their relationship, and they accepted it. They both said theirpiece and walked away."

Bob will foreverbe bitter about his boys' small-time careers—Scott, a corner infielder, played167 big league games from 1989 through '94—certain they were jobbed by thepowers that be. Baseball? "A curse on the Coolbaugh family, as far as I'mconcerned," Bob says. Mike hit 256 home runs in the minors, and if heagonized over not getting his break, he never resented the good players who gota shot. He could be dour: "A lovable grouch," Astros second basemanChris Burke, a former minor league teammate, called him. But Coolbaugh's darkmoods would always pass. "Listen to me complain," he would say."Like I've got it bad."

Finally, on theafternoon of July 15, 2001, he got his day. Coolbaugh was heading for thebatting cage in Durham, N.C., when Indianapolis Indians manager Wendell Kimstopped him. "I don't think that's a good idea," Kim said. "Itwouldn't be good for you to get hurt just before you go to Milwaukee."

Coolbaugh warnedhim not to joke. "Better get packed," Kim said. "You're going to belate for the plane."

Mandy and Mike hadbeen a couple since 1996 and married since 2000. She knew him to have criedonly four times: on their wedding day, on the days their two sons were born andon the day he got called up, after 1,165 games in places like St. Catharines,Ont.; Knoxville, Tenn.; and Huntsville, Ala. "We did it," Mike said ina voicemail, between sobs. "We finally did it. We're going to be upthere."

The next dayCoolbaugh had a cab drop him at Milwaukee County Stadium at 9 a.m. A securityguard told him no one would arrive until 11. He had nowhere to go. So the guardgave him a tour: up and down the concourses in a golf cart, out to the perfectfield, into the hushed clubhouse. Coolbaugh found his locker, with a Brewersjersey hanging in it: number 14, his name stitched with care across theback.

He played 39 gameswith the Brewers. None were as sweet as the first two. In his first at bat,with Mandy in the stands, he smacked a pinch-hit double. The next morning thecouple woke to find that Mike's father; his mother, Mary Lu; and his sistershad arrived after an all-night drive from upstate New York. "My dad's heretoday," Mike told one sportswriter. "I'm going to have a goodgame." In his second major league at bat he drove a 3 and 1 pitch from theChicago White Sox' Jon Garland into the leftfield stands and ran around thebases as if it were the most normal thing in the world. The whole Coolbaughfamily was crying. "Just that one at bat," Mandy says, "he didn'tneed anything else."

NO, COOLBAUGHneeded what all competitors need: more. Milwaukee gave him a taste of playingat the pinnacle, with its plush hotel rooms, a $320,000 salary and, most ofall, respect. He finished the season with two home runs and a .200 average, andnow, it seemed, all those years of work might pay off. Even after the Brewersreleased him that October, Coolbaugh felt he belonged in the majors. He hookedon with St. Louis the next spring, ravaged Grapefruit League pitching andseemed sure to head west with the Cardinals. Instead, the St. Louis brass optedfor the multidimensional, if less productive, Eduardo Perez—a decision thatshocks Perez to this day. When manager Tony La Russa called Coolbaugh over withthe news that he was being sent down again, Coolbaugh began to jog away."You're not going to catch me," he said, laughing outside and groaningwithin. "This is not going to happen."

But it did.Coolbaugh played five games for St. Louis as a September call-up, hit .083 andwould never appear in a major league city again. "To me it's one word:opportunity," says former Houston Astros general manager Tim Purpura."It just never came for him at the right time. He had the talent. Therejust wasn't the opening."

It's a truism ofminor league ball that anyone who plays it for a long time must be a team guy,good for clubhouse chemistry. Coolbaugh played 17 seasons in the bushes fornine organizations, and no one ever said a harsh word about him. Clubs gave himchances well past his sell-by date. He played in Korea in 2003, got hurt, thensurfaced in the Astros' farm system. In '04 he reached Triple A New Orleans,only to get off to a poor start. One night in Omaha he struck out three times,and the team bus passed him walking the 10 miles from ballpark to hotel."He's got his head down and he's talking to himself," Burke recalls."Here he is, with a thousand games in his career, but he couldn't handlethe fact that he was in a bad rut."

Coolbaugh climbedout and hit 30 home runs that season. It wasn't nearly enough: Morgan Ensberghad a lock on third base in Houston. Coolbaugh was back in Triple A in 2005,hitting 27 homers and driving in 101 runs for Round Rock. "I'm not going tolet them beat me," he told Scott. The Astros had every intention of callinghim up in September, but in late August, Coolbaugh took an inside pitch on hisleft hand, breaking a bone. In the spring of '06, on the first day of bigleague camp with the Kansas City Royals, a fastball shattered his left wrist.He toyed with playing in Mexico this spring but gave it up after a week. Hisplaying career was done.

Still, Coolbaughwanted to keep his battered hand in. He tried to land a rookie league coachingjob with Houston, but execs there felt his demeanor, while fine for seasonedplayers, might not be right for fresh-faced youngsters. Coolbaugh didn't have,as Burke says, a "warm-and-fuzzy Field of Dreams love of baseball."There were times when Coolbaugh, like any self-respecting player, hated thegame for its politics, all the gut-wrenching failure. He took business coursesonline, but baseball was what he knew; he had a family to feed and a baby onthe way. His sons, five-year-old Joseph and four-year-old Jacob, wanted to seehim in uniform again. When hitting coach Orlando Merced left Tulsa for personalreasons and the job opened up in May, Mike interviewed and waited—but didn'tsay a word about it to Mandy until he actually got hired.

"He didn'twant to jinx things," she says. "It felt like we were always beingjinxed in his career."

Coolbaugh joinedthe Drillers on July 4, introducing himself at the batting cage in San Antonio."I always had trouble getting away from inside pitches," he told theplayers. The team's hitting improved almost instantly. With his quietsincerity, Coolbaugh gained the players' trust. "You just felt him,"says Asahina. "He had that warrior energy, very stoic. I was very careful:I would only ask him crisp questions. I wanted to let him know I'm not heretalking about last night or women in the stands. No: It's baseball."

Here was a guy whowanted them to succeed, like "a family member," says Sanchez, who hadworked as the de facto hitting and first base coach before Coolbaugh's arrival."When somebody got a hit, it was like he got a hit. When somebodystruggled, he said, 'Hey, let's do this or that.'" Like Coolbaugh, Sanchezhad been victimized by injuries and the numbers game. Like Sanchez, whosedaughter, Isabella Sophia, was born on Aug. 18, Coolbaugh was expecting achild—and was sure it would be a girl. On July 21, the day before he died,Coolbaugh took Sanchez out to lunch at a Mexican restaurant. "We couldn'tstop talking about baseball," Sanchez says. "After I told him I wasgoing to have a baby, his face changed. He told me that it's the most beautifulexperience I would go through. That's when I knew how much he really loved hisfamily."

The last timeScott Coolbaugh saw his brother, he stopped by Mike's house in San Antonio.Mike had been with the Drillers less than a week. It's really starting toclick, he told Scott. They spoke of the Drillers' Aug. 8 game in Frisco, andhow cool it would be to face each other on the field again. "I'm lookingforward to seeing you," Mike said.

WHEN A BAT hits apitch flush, the ball gains speed. Asahina's sinker ranges from 88 to 91 mph,but a field-level radar gun measured the speed of the ball at 101 mph justbefore it struck the side of his head. The ball that crushed Bo McLaughlin'scheekbone hit him at 104 mph. McLaughlin has a tape of that game and swearsthat the microphone hanging from the press box picked up the sound of bonesbreaking. He needed two operations to reconstruct his face. His left eye socketis wired in five places. McLaughlin lives in Phoenix, and whenever temperatureshit 113° or 114°, the metal gets so hot that the whites of his eyes turnred.

Did Mike Coolbaughknow what hit him? McLaughlin remembers every instant of his accident. Asahina,on the other hand, seems to have experienced a protective amnesia. "I don'trecall seeing the ball off the bat or anything else," he says. "It'slike something in your deep subconscious says, No, you're not supposed to seethis. So I don't."

Eyewitnessesdeclared that they saw the ball strike Coolbaugh in the temple. But the soundof impact wasn't that of ball on bone; it was more muffled, and a preliminaryautopsy released two days later found that the ball hit Coolbaugh about half aninch below and behind his left ear. The impact crushed his left vertebralartery—which carries blood from the spinal column to the brain—against the leftfirst cervical vertebra, at the base of Coolbaugh's skull. Squeezed almostliterally between a rock and a hard place, the artery burst. A severe brainhemorrhage ensued. Mark Malcolm, the Pulaski County coroner who performed theautopsy, says he's never seen a case like it in his 21 years of work. "Man,that's a one-in-bazillion chance," Malcolm says. "A half a hair ineither direction and it wouldn't have killed him."

Coolbaugh fell tohis back, his hands landing on either side of his head. Sanchez bolted out ofthe batter's box and up the first base line, reaching Coolbaugh first.Coolbaugh's eyes were rolling up into his head. His mouth spewed a whitishfoam; his body convulsed. Sanchez backed up, sank to his knees and dropped hishead into his hands.

The two teamtrainers and the three doctors who came out of the stands raced to the pronefigure. Within seconds Coolbaugh had stopped breathing. He was given oxygen andhooked up to a defibrillator. An ambulance was called, and Cole had Asahina runinto the clubhouse, retrieve a trainer's first-aid pack and carry it out tofirst base. It was the first time Asahina had stepped on a field during a gamesince his own accident 12 weeks before.

Sanchez wasstanding now, praying for Coolbaugh to be O.K. He also begged God, Please don'tdo this to me. Then he heard someone near Coolbaugh say, "Don't go, Mike!Come back!"

The ambulance tookhim. Though Coolbaugh still had a pulse when he arrived at Baptist HealthMedical Center, doctors determined that his life ended at the moment of impact."He may have heard the crack of the bat, but that's it," Malcolm says."I think he had no knowledge."

Cole received thenews soon after in his office but didn't inform the players until a good 90minutes later, after he'd been to the hospital and back. In the meantimeSanchez buttonholed everyone he could, asking if they'd heard anything. Whenthe manager finally announced that Coolbaugh was dead, Sanchez startedflailing. "I think I fractured my hand here," he says, pointing to thebottom of his right hand, "because I couldn't control it; I startedpunching everything. I hit the floor. I walked away and I went down, because Icouldn't stop myself. I went down."

The phone rang inthe Coolbaugh house in San Antonio around 9:15 p.m. Mandy had friends over towatch a movie, and when she saw it was Mike's cellphone, she answered quiteappropriately for a pregnant woman whose mile-a-minute boys were finally downfor the night. "Mike, you know I have people over here," she saidinstead of hello. "What do you want?"

The instant sheheard the voice of Drillers trainer Austin O'Shea, Mandy knew the news was bad.Mike called himself whenever he got hurt. O'Shea told her only that Mike was atthe hospital. He didn't want some insensitive MD telling her out of the bluethat her husband was already dead. "You need to come up here," O'Sheasaid.

But a doctorphoned before she left for Little Rock. For Mandy the rest of the night was ablur. She got up early and saw that reports of Mike's death were on TV; thefirst camera crew came to her door at 7 a.m. Mandy knew she had to tell theboys quickly. When they woke up, she and Mike's mother sat in their bedroom,with the baseballs listing their birth weight and height, and their dad'sMilwaukee and St. Louis jerseys on the wall. Mandy told them Daddy was hit by aball, and God took him to heaven. "Well, if Daddy's up in heaven now, can Iplay with his bats?" Joey asked.

Mandy Coolbaugh isstill irked by the way she answered the phone that night. But it's just likebaseball to leave her with regret on top of grief. "This game will step onyour neck and keep stepping on it," Burke says. "But something likethis is almost too much to take."

TINO SANCHEZ keptsinking. There was a five-hour bus ride back to Tulsa, a tearful team meetingthe next day, a night of torment in his apartment. He didn't sleep. He turnedoff his cellphone. Everyone kept repeating that it wasn't his fault."People don't understand," Sanchez says. "They're still telling methat it was an accident, and that's been very supportive. But whether it was myfault or not, literally I killed a human being."

He would stareoff, having clear flashbacks of his lunch with Coolbaugh, of looking to thecoach for reassurance during his next-to-last at bat—every image from themoment they met to when the ambulance rolled away. Too many thoughts:Coolbaugh's family.His sons. His wife, his wife, his wife. Guilt engulfedSanchez those first 48 hours. He felt as if he were drowning. "Mike isdragging me," he told a friend. "He's taking me with him."

The Rockies senthim home to Yauco. Sanchez began to calm, to sleep. He decided to go back tothe Drillers because he felt he owed the organization and his teammates forstanding by him, because he wanted to honor baseball and Coolbaugh. When herejoined the team in Frisco, he almost felt ready.

But then came thatstrange dance with Scott Coolbaugh at first base, the silence, the guiltflooding back into his gut. The game ended, and as Sanchez was gathering hisglove, a teammate pointed to two women along the rail who wanted a word. Thestands 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 andput out his hand, eyes stinging. Lisa's knees wobbled; she wasn't sure shecould speak. Mike had spoken to the family, had said how proud he was of thisone player on the team named Tino. She wanted him to know that. She reachedout, crying too, and they grabbed each other tight.

It was about10:30, two strangers touched by mercy. Lisa told Tino that the family was doingwell. She said they didn't blame him. She cried again and said they would allget through this together. The stadium lights went dark. And for the first timesince Coolbaugh died, Sanchez felt lighter.

He'll never becompletely free. "I took his life away," Sanchez says, "and he tooka part of my heart with him." But when Scott Coolbaugh stopped Sanchezduring batting practice the next afternoon and repeated his sister's words andtold him to call whenever he needed, it helped. When Mandy approached himoutside the clubhouse in Tulsa in mid-August, it helped even more. That theCoolbaughs could push past their profound pain to comfort—no, absolve—him seemslike a miracle, proof of grace. "Everything that's got to do with love isGod," Sanchez says, "and that was pure love."

They saved him. Ofthat alone he's sure.

IN THE BASEBALLworld, the reaction to Coolbaugh's death went far beyond what would be expectedfor a player so obscure. It wasn't just because of the accident's freakishnature. Coolbaugh had played for so many organizations that, for many people,he'd become emblematic of how arbitrary the sport could be. More than $100,000in donations have poured into the foundation formed to help his family. Notjust from fans, but also from major leaguers who know that just one broken handcould have derailed their careers too—players who fear what Coolbaughrepresented. He was the guy who always gets a flat tire on the way to the jobinterview, the one who never could get a break. He was minor league baseball,and who grew up wanting to be that?

Yet off the fieldCoolbaugh 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 franticallyscrolled through Coolbaugh's cellphone directory that Sunday, it wasn't hardfor him to find Mandy's number. He came upon the nickname Gorgeous and knew tohit SEND.

"As a husband?He was perfect," Mandy says. "He just did everything right. He was theone who made sure we got to church every Sunday, who made sure the kids prayedbefore every meal, who tucked them in at night. He would leave me surpriseseverywhere. If he left before me for the season, he would leave handwrittennotes, but he would hide them under pillows, in shorts, drawers, suitcases, abook I was reading. Saying things like, 'I'm going to miss you, but we'll betogether soon. I love you.' He would call every night no matter how late it wasjust to tell me he loved me. When we had our kids, he wrote two songsdescribing our life. I was in labor, and he sat in the hospital and took out anotepad and wrote them down and would sing them to me. He sang all thetime."

Mike built thecrib and the changing table from scratch and installed the catcher's-mitt lightin the boys' room. The only time in 10 years that Mandy and he disagreed, shesays, was over the third child. Mandy wanted one, while Mike worried that theycouldn't afford another. She figured that the battle was lost, but on the dayshe learned she was pregnant, he couldn't have been happier. Money would betight; he didn't care. Tears roll down her face as she speaks of it: Mikealways put her first. "But I know you want this," he said.

"So there aredays I question it," she says of his death. "Why would God want this tohappen to the kids? I have no doubt it would've been easier for everybody if ithad been me instead of him, because Mike would know where to go from here. Hewould know what to do."

He always made thedecisions, after all, which is why his behavior this past spring seemed sojarring. Mike turned 35 in June, and indulged in midlife-crisis standards likecalling old friends he hadn't spoken to in years. But he also had becomefixated on death. Cancer had killed Mandy's mother in 2003, but not untilrecently had Mike wanted to know details of the moment she passed, how muchpain she endured. He talked about buying burial plots for himself and Mandy. Heinsisted that Mandy, who never even knew his salary, learn how to handle thehousehold finances in case "something happens to me." Just weeks beforeLittle Rock, he spoke about her having a baby after he died. For the firsttime, too, he wanted her to sit out in the front yard and watch while he showedJoey 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."

"Mike, you'renot playing anymore," Mandy told him. "We're home. Nothing's going tohappen to us."

Mike never let theboys mess with his equipment. Now Joey puts on his father's spikes and refusesto take them off. Now he wears his dad's oversized T-shirts all day. One dayrecently 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 startedbadgering Mandy about Mike's black bat, the one in the attic. She didn't knowwhat Joey was talking about, but, finally worn down, she climbed up there thenight 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 woundaround the handle identified it: the bat Mike used for his first major leaguehit, July 16, 2001.

The next morningJoey stands in the front yard swinging the black bat that's nearly as long ashe is tall. His father taught him well. His swing is smooth. He lines the firstthree pitches 20 feet over the grass.

AT TIMES likethese, Coolbaugh's death makes almost no sense. It's easy to see the accidentas merely a random occurrence. For believers, though, the coincidences,premonitions and precursors are signs of a plan: causal lines and connectionsrevealed only after the fact, like a spiderweb after rain.

Or maybe it'snothing so grandiose. Mandy mentions all the tributes from Mike's peers, thehundreds of e-mails from around the world, the fact that the Drillers haveretired his jersey. "If he went out any other way, would he have gotten allthe 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. Iwish I could at least have the respect that I was a good player.' And by dyingon the field, he did."

Now a DVD tributeis 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 andMandy 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 walkwith me. He hated sand between his toes, but he wanted to take a long walk. Wewalked for about an hour, the kids running in front."

It seems a brutaltrade: 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 sonscling to empty clothes and the fading echo of a summer sea. Who can say why? Itwill have to be enough to know that in the most obscure corners, compassionlives and success has nothing to do with fame or money or even greatness. Itwill 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.

Sanchez's future seems doomed to unfold in the spacebetween two unanswerable questions. "WHY ME?" he asks. "WHYHIM?"
In the minors Coolbaugh watched as CALLOW TALENTS, badteammates and, yes, plenty of superior players elbowed past him.
Scott and Mike's father will forever be bitter abouttheir small-time careers. Baseball? "A CURSE on the Coolbaugh family,"Bob says.
"A ONE-IN-BAZILLION chance," says the coronerof the fatal blow. "A half a hair either way and it wouldn't have killedhim."
Coolbaugh was back in Triple A in '05, hitting 27homers and driving in 101 runs. "I'm not going to LET THEM BEAT me," hetold Scott.
"If he went out any other way," Mandy says ofher husband's death, "would he have GOTTEN ALL THE RESPECT he has fromthis?"


Memories of Mike

See more Coolbaugh family photographs.


PHOTOPhotographs by Darren CarrollBEREFT In San Antonio, Mandy asks why Joey (left) and Jake have had to endure the loss of Mike (opposite page).PHOTOOTTO GREULE JR./GETTY IMAGES[See caption above]PHOTOPhotographs by Darren CarrollUNBREAKABLE BOND Before he struck the fatal liner, Sanchez had grown close to his new coach.PHOTOMORRY GASH/APHUM DINGER Coolbaugh hit a home run in his second major league game, with Milwaukee in 2001.PHOTORONALD C. MODRAPEN PAL With Medicine Hat in 1990, as with all his teams, Coolbaugh happily signed for fans.PHOTOPhotographs by Darren CarrollDRILLED Asahina (left) and McLaughlin have suffered head injuries from batted balls.PHOTOPhotographs by Darren CarrollSTRANGER THAN FICTION Scott Coolbaugh coached first base for Frisco in Sanchez's first game back.PHOTOCOURTESY OF THE COOLBAUGH FAMILYSHIFTING TIDES A model dad, Mike spent his last day with Joey and Jake at a Corpus Christi beach.