Two lives shattered in one freak moment of time
WICHITA, Kan. -- If there had been more time, Mike Coolbaugh and Tino Sanchez might have known how much they were alike. How they'd worry about their pregnant wives. How they spent so much time in buses and half-empty ballparks that their dreams flickered by like a dying scoreboard light.
The phone rings in San Antonio, and Mandy Coolbaugh is torn. If she talks about her husband, she will inevitably dab her raw eyes again and open up the questions: Why a man could die in a place he loved so much? How one in a million could land on two lives that were just really starting?
Mike would have handled it if something happened in the family. He handled everything. They used to laugh, after that first blind date, about how the last thing she wanted to do was marry a ballplayer. They weren't stable enough. But then they danced and shot pool and never wanted to part.
Time? There wasn't any. The baby that's expected in a few months, the Coolbaugh's third child, has yet to be named. If it's a boy, he'll be called Mike.
The players who surrounded Coolbaugh on a calm, cool night in Little Rock, Ark., they'd known him just three weeks.
A month ago, the Tulsa Drillers were looking for a hitting coach, and the time, finally, seemed right. Mike turned to Mandy and said, "We can do this."
On July 22, in the ninth inning of one of thousands of minor league games, Coolbaugh was coaching first base with a runner on when Sanchez drilled a 3-1 fastball into foul territory. Coolbaugh had time only to slightly raise his hands before the ball hit his neck. He was pronounced dead later at a hospital, at the age of 35, less than an hour after Sanchez had kneeled near him on the field.
The week that followed was a dizzying array of numbness, unerasable sounds and, of course, guilt. Sanchez was so devastated that he waited at least a day to tell his parents in Puerto Rico. Drillers manager Stu Cole, sensing his hitter's pain, eventually told him to go home and be with his wife, who was due with their first child any day.
Mandy has stayed home, remembering how Mike used to hide a note somewhere every time he went on the road. Usually, they just said "I love you" or "I think about you every single day." Coolbaugh left one in her suitcase just before he took off for his last road trip. She was supposed to meet him in a few days.
"I can't make sense of it," Mandy says. "I keep telling myself there's a reason for this to happen, but I don't know what it would be. Because he was needed here more than anybody.
"He was my rock, he was my prince. Everything was OK when I was around him."
On the night of July 22, somewhere 400 miles away, Fernando Cortez thought about texting Mike Coolbaugh. Cortez is an infielder for the Omaha Royals, he's 10 years younger than Coolbaugh, but they became friends out of a love for fantasy football and the fact that Coolbaugh, in essence, was one giant kid himself.
When Coolbaugh left Omaha in September last year, the last team he'd play for, he packed up his car and pointed it home to San Antonio. Cortez was about to embark on a longer drive to California, so they'd call every couple of hours, just to check that the other was OK.
Coolbaugh was a family-man version of Crash Davis, a third baseman drafted by Toronto in 1990 who shuffled from minor league stop to minor league stop for a decade before finally making the majors. Seventeen summers led to 44 games in the bigs, between 2001 and 2002, for Milwaukee and St. Louis.
Mandy Coolbaugh answered the phone the day in July 2001 when he was called up by the Brewers and thought something was wrong. Mike was crying. In one of his early at-bats, he hit a home run. He told his friends that no matter what happened, no one could take that away from him.
Coolbaugh, ex-teammates say, was always the one willing to give younger players some batting tips, always there for a beer and a laugh. It didn't matter if that hitter eventually made it to the majors and he didn't.
"He was all about baseball," Omaha outfielder Shane Costa says. "It didn't surprise me when I found out he was coaching. I could see him doing it forever."
With baseball over, Coolbaugh went back to school in San Antonio to pursue a degree in business. Through the first year, he'd carried a 4.0 GPA. He dreamed of opening a hitting park in San Antonio where little boys could go to learn to bat. He had two sons, and they already had developed a deep affection for the game, at least any game that their dad was playing. Joey just turned 5; Jacob will be 4 in September.
In one of the last weeks of his life, Coolbaugh's boys were able to see him coach, standing in a Drillers uniform, wearing the No. 29 that now hangs in the team dugout.
Cortez decided not to text Coolbaugh that night of July 22 because they hadn't talked in a while and he wanted their conversation to be more personal. In the days after Coolbaugh's death, Cortez keeps reliving the visual of his friend getting off the plane after a road trip, a giant man hugging his tiny family.
"I'm not married, and I don't have any kids," Cortez says. "But when I do, I want it to be like that. Whenever I see a family meeting each other at the airport, it would remind me of him. It was probably one of the cooler things that you could see."
Coolbaugh spent much of the past year at home, filling in some of the gaps from all the summers on the road. "This will be the only time we'll be able to relax and enjoy ourselves," he told Mandy last spring. "Let's make the most of it."
He took his boys to the rodeo. A few months ago, he won a massive stuffed german shepherd at the arcade. He told Joey and Jacob it would be their guardian.
He said it would watch over them when they were scared.
The locals in Little Rock say the summer of 2007 has been one in a hundred. Humidity has given way to comfortable, almost cool nights. Baseball weather, they say. Because it was a Sunday and the game started early, Bill Valentine wandered down to the booth in the fourth inning to help with the broadcast.
Fifty-six years, and he's never seen anyone die on a baseball field. He was behind the plate in 1967 when Red Sox outfielder Tony Conigliaro was hit in the face by a Jack Hamilton fastball. But this was different.
"That vivid memory and sound," Valentine says. "The sound of a ball hitting the bat and something softer, plop, plop, back to back It was tragic. I think that's what everyone can't comprehend, the quickness. It happened in an instant. It just seems like it was all one motion."
Sanchez sprinted to his coach, and the thing that sticks in Valentine's mind is the anguished look on the young hitter's face.
By Class AA standards, Sanchez, 28, is a seasoned veteran. His path was similar to Coolbaugh's, a season here, a promotion there, then back in Tulsa.
Yes, Sanchez and Coolbaugh were a lot alike. On a team full of 20-somethings, Sanchez is a journeyman who somehow has stayed deeply planted. He's one of the few married guys, and comes from a tight family.
Before the Drillers hired Coolbaugh, Sanchez filled in as the unofficial hitting coach.
"The players really heaped praises on him and how well he did," a staff member in the Drillers' office says. "I think the Rockies have an idea that he might be able to fill the bill as a coach someday with a Double-A team."
Sanchez is described as "one of the nicest guys on the team," an everyman who just fits in. When the young Latin American players have trouble with their English, Sanchez serves as their go-between.
In June, Sanchez was called up to Class AAA Colorado Springs when catcher Edwin Bellorin went on the disabled list. The promotion lasted just a few days. But Sanchez, who's been in the minors for a decade, was used to that.
On the night Coolbaugh was hit, as the stadium stood silent, catcher Rick Guarno called Victor Cruz, the team chaplain. Guarno was on deck when Coolbaugh was hit. He told Cruz it didn't look good. He asked him to pray.
Later that night, Cruz wanted to talk to Sanchez. They had a bond, both being from Puerto Rico, and Sanchez sometimes liked to talk to Cruz in Spanish. But Sanchez couldn't speak. What could he say?
Nobody thought Coolbaugh would die on a baseball field. As the ambulance took him away, manager Stu Cole was praying, and planning to send him some get-well roses.
"Never in a million years," Cole says, "did I think that he wouldn't be able to come out of it."
The game was suspended, and eventually called. Who could stand on the bases, with a 7-3 score in the ninth, and relive it?
The next day, in an emotional team meeting, Sanchez sat with his head buried.
"He was crying the entire meeting," Cruz says. "He just exploded in tears."
Cruz talked to Sanchez before he left for Puerto Rico, gave him his cell number, told him he could call any time. Five days passed, and Sanchez didn't call.
"He's still bottling it," Cruz says. "I said, 'My friend, you need to talk. You need to just be able to talk to me or talk to your local pastor, talk to a counselor.' He's a strong man. He's going to be all right, but it's going to take a while."
On Saturday, when Sanchez's wife still hadn't given birth, he told a teammate that if the baby didn't come by Monday -- today -- the doctors would induce labor. Coolbaugh's funeral is today in San Antonio.
Mandy Coolbaugh says she doesn't want Sanchez to stop playing. Mike wouldn't want that, she says.
They were just two people in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But baseball people know that Sanchez will struggle. It's something else he can't control.
"There was nothing that could've prevented that," Valentine says. "Nothing, except not having a coach there.
"It was nobody's fault. Unfortunately the hitter who hit the ball will never nobody will ever forget it. I don't think any player or umpire or any person in the press box or in the stands, anybody who witnessed it will ever forget it."
It is another clear, perfect night for baseball, and a woman is standing on the field, in between innings, trying to catch beanbags in a frying pan and salvage her humility. The Drillers are in Wichita, Kan., their first game back since Coolbaugh's death, and a smattering of fans made the 2½-hour drive to soothe the lumps in their throats.
A boy in the stands holds a sign that says, "In Memory of No. 29, Mike Coolbaugh. We Miss You."
The players have scribbled the initials "MC" on their caps. About half the players don't feel like playing on this night, just two days after Coolbaugh's death. Some think it's too soon.
"Nothing was normal today," says infielder Christian Colonel. "I don't know if it's going to be normal tomorrow or the next day."
First time they met, Colonel was struck by Coolbaugh's energy. He was young and liked to laugh and could relate to the players. Ten months ago, he was them.
In his first game with the Drillers, as the coaches exchanged lineups, Coolbaugh asked if someone wanted to tell a joke. At some point, in those three weeks, he apparently turned to an ump and said he thought he'd finally found his calling.
On Tuesday night, with Coolbaugh gone, there is no one to coach first base. Jon Asahina, a long-haired 25-year-old pitcher who suffered a fractured skull when he was hit by a line drive at, of all places, Little Rock earlier this year, stood there to start the game. Pitcher Darren Clarke eventually filled in for him.
The Drillers, in the middle of a four-game losing skid, hit four home runs in a 12-6 win. As they meet on the field, they tap Coolbaugh's No. 29 jersey, which had hung near Cole in the dugout throughout the game.
"He was doing this for fun," Colonel says. "He became a part of this team in two and a half weeks, three weeks. I'll never forget him. He had many more years of coaching, many more years of passing his knowledge, ahead of him.
"There's really no answer. Everybody in our clubhouse is asking why. Some guys are angry, some guys are sad, some guys are confused. He played 17 years professionally. That's when you're supposed to get hurt, you know?"
Colonel walks off the field with Coolbaugh's jersey as old men and fathers with little boys gather under the lights of the parking lot. It's like a thousand other nights in baseball.
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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