Great reflexes don't guarantee protection

Originally Published: July 23, 2007
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

Base coaches in the major leagues are "a fraternity," says Rich Donnelly, the third-base coach of the Dodgers. They talk all the time about their jobs, about giving signs, sending runners, etc. And they talk all the time about the danger and the fear of standing 90 feet, sometimes closer, from a hitter that might hit a line drive at them at an inconceivable rate of speed.

[+] EnlargeRich Donnelly #37
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty ImagesRich Donnelly, right, is in his 26th season as a major league coach.
"Today," Donnelly said, "I am sick to my stomach."

Sunday night, Mike Coolbaugh, the first base coach for the Tulsa Drillers, was killed when he was hit in the head by a line drive during a game. He was 35. He is a former major leaguer, a great athlete with great reflexes. And he had no time to get out of the way.

"People have no understanding of how hard the ball is hit at you," Donnelly said. "You have to ready for anything on every pitch. It doesn't matter if you're 20 years old or 60. It doesn't matter if you have great reflexes. You can be quick as a cat, and you'll have no chance. Helmets won't help. It's a helpless feeling down there.

"When there's a runner on second base, the third-base coach has to move much closer to the plate to get a look at the runner at second. So now he's about 70 feet from home plate. I don't know about speeds, but I've read studies that the ball leaves the pitcher's hand at 95 mph, but it's going 200 mph when it gets [hit back] to the pitcher. And it's the same speed when it gets to the coach's box. Every third- and first-base coach in the major and minor leagues knows what I'm talking about."

Donnelly is a great athlete. He is 60. He remains a fabulous racquetball player. He wins age-group tournaments nationally, and beats guys half his age. But every time he stands in the third-base coach's box, he reminds himself that he must be ready for a rocket line drive.

"I've been hit three times really, really hard," he said. "I remember the places, the dates and the time -- that's how scary they were. The worst one was Greg Norton. I remember the pitcher and the pitch: Doug Davis threw a slow curveball. A lot of time, it's a slow curveball.

"The ball hit me in the back of the head, just to the right of my skull, on the fat part of my neck. If I hadn't turned my head in time, I might be done: It would have hit me right in the face. Buddy Bell [then the manager of the Rockies] was the first person I remember seeing after I was hit. He said he thought I was dead. He said it sounded like someone smashing a watermelon. That is a terrible, terrible sound. But I think my racquetball instincts saved my life. I was just able to turn my head just enough."

Donnelly got hit two other times.

"Moises Alou hit me in the back of the thigh in Toronto," Donnelly said. "I felt like I had been shot with a bullet. Wes Helms hit me in the same place. Damaso Marte was the pitcher. The time you're most vulnerable is when you're yelling at and coaching the runner at second base. You're looking at him, and you're not looking at the hitter.

You can be quick as a cat, and you'll have no chance. Helmets won't help. It's a helpless feeling down there.

-- Rich Donnelly

"As soon as the pitch is thrown, you turn and look at the hitter. When I turn, I'm down in a racquetball stance, like I'm guarding someone in basketball. I stand that way because it gives me the best chance to not get hit. My first step is always to my left so I can get it in the back. You can't just stand straight up and look at the hitter. You're not in a position to move."

Donnelly also has had some near misses.

"Damian Miller hit a ball at me once. I heard it coming, but I never saw it, and it just missed me," Donnelly said. "I saw Rickey Henderson [the new first-base coach of the Mets] almost get hit yesterday [Sunday]. He never saw it. He has never been down there before.'"

Tonight in Houston, Donnelly will be in the third-base coaching box for the Dodgers.

"My condolences are with Mike Coolbaugh and his family. This is a terrible, terrible tragedy," Donnelly said. "Tonight, I'll be thinking about Mike Coolbaugh. So will every base coach in baseball."

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.