One year later, Coolbaugh's family keeps memories close
Eight months old, and Anne Coolbaugh recently said her first word. It was "Dad." She says it when she touches his picture. The snapshots of Mike Coolbaugh are all over the house and hang a couple of feet from the floor so his young kids can see them.Anne and her two brothers don't know their mom cries every day and dreads the day she stops. Will that mean she's forgetting about him? Pizza makes her cry. That was Mike's favorite food. So do songs on the radio, baseball games and parent-teacher conferences. "With kids, especially, death isn't something you explain to them once," Mandy Coolbaugh says. "It's an everyday conversation; it's an every-event conversation. At parties everybody shows up, all the parents, and it's a big realization to my kids that Daddy's not here.
"Every day, we're having a conversation of what happens when you die and what Daddy can see. Would Daddy be proud of me?"It does not get easier with time. A year has passed since Mike was killed by a line drive while he coached first base in a minor league game in North Little Rock, Ark. His family will mark the anniversary in California, far away from their San Antonio home, leaning on relatives, trying to get Mandy's mind off what July 22 represents. Mike's playing career has been boiled down to 12 lines of statistics on a baseball reference Web site. "Rest in peace Mike," it now says near the top of the page. In death, the minor league lifer somehow has become everybody's teammate. Strangers still send packages and cards to the Coolbaughs' home. Friends wonder how they have managed to get through a year without him. "I still have his number in my phone," says former Brewers pitcher and outfielder Brooks Kieschnick. "I never erased it and never will. Not a day goes by that I don't miss him, especially when I'm scrolling through my phone and see his name in there. I just miss him. Bottom line, I think you'll probably get that from anybody you talk to. I miss his friendship."
Like hundreds of others who met him in cramped minor league clubhouses, Tulsa Drillers trainer Austin O'Shea calls Mike Coolbaugh a friend. They knew each other for three weeks. Coolbaugh was the new hitting coach for the Double-A Drillers. He was young and recently retired from playing, and at night, after games, he'd get bored and miss his family back in San Antonio. O'Shea became his travel buddy, the guy he'd hang out with for dinner, beers and movies. Coolbaugh had spent 16 years as an infielder in the minors -- he broke into the major leagues for 44 games with Milwaukee and St. Louis -- and O'Shea figured most of their nights would be filled with average guy talk.
"I'm a single guy," O'Shea says, "and I talk about girls and stuff. He'd talk about how he met his wife and how he knew she was the one. He used to enjoy the single life, but he was so enthralled with being a dad and a husband."You could tell he was so happy with it, happy in life." O'Shea was with Coolbaugh as he took his final breaths. O'Shea rode in the ambulance and was the one who had to call Mandy Coolbaugh after 9 on the night of July 22 to tell her there had been an accident. Coolbaugh always worried about the dangers of foul balls. He was keenly aware of people in harm's way who weren't paying attention in the stands. When a foul ball fractured 7-year-old Dominic DiAngi's skull at Wrigley Field earlier this month, Mandy e-mailed the story to ESPN.com with a note. "This is the kind of thing that scared Mike," she wrote, "not so much players on the field not being aware, but fans " DiAngi survived, and was released from the hospital a week ago.
The ball that hit Coolbaugh scorched off Tino Sanchez's bat in the ninth inning on the night of July 22, 2007. Coolbaugh was coaching first base with a runner on when he was struck by the foul line drive. The ball ruptured a blood vessel in his neck, just below his left ear. Within an hour, Coolbaugh was dead.
One year later, the Drillers' roster, true to Double-A form, is vastly different. Two-thirds of the team is gone, including Sanchez. He retired from baseball after the 2007 season. Sanchez was emotionally jarred from July 22, but also came to the realization that it was time to let go.
Sanchez went home to Puerto Rico. Two and a half months before Anne Coolbaugh was born, his wife delivered a daughter.
They do not hate baseball. It would be easy for the Coolbaughs to at least question it, why the sport that shunned Mike so often, in so many non-call-ups to the majors, would end up being the reason he died at age 35.
Mandy still has trouble watching ballgames. She's used to seeing Mike in his neatly pressed uniform, smiling at them in the stands. She also knows how much baseball helps her sons, who are 6 and 4, remember their dad. When Jake and Joey were babies, she says, their first words were "ball."
Friends -- new and old -- try to fill the void. The Drillers call whenever they're in San Antonio and invite the boys to play during batting practice. Mike's brother Scott, a first-base coach with the Double-A Frisco RoughRiders, also takes them to the park.A couple of months ago, after hanging out with their uncle, Joey wrote a letter in school to his baby sister. "What it basically said is, 'Daddy used to take us to the field all the time. Daddy can't do that now because he's in heaven. But Uncle Scott will,'" Mandy says.
And despite every disappointment baseball threw Mike in 16 years, it has surprised and overwhelmed his family. This past fall, in the middle of Colorado's run to the World Series, the players on the parent-club Rockies voted to give a full share of the team's playoff earnings to the Coolbaughs. Joey and Jake tossed the ceremonial first pitch in Game 3 of the National League division series against Philadelphia and ran around the clubhouse with Matt Holliday and Todd Helton during spring training.In November, in response to Mike Coolbaugh's death, Major League Baseball implemented a rule requiring base coaches to wear protective head gear.
This coming November, friends and family will hold a golf tournament to help support Mandy and the kids."I wasn't surprised by how everybody reacted who knew him," says former Cincinnati outfielder Mike Frank, who roomed with Coolbaugh in the minors. "He was such a great guy. I think the way it spread throughout baseball and the way everybody stepped up and really showed their support was surprising. "It's a pretty close fraternity of people, and he's played with or against everybody out there. It's great the outpouring we've had, but you just wish it wouldn't have happened."
Anne Michael Coolbaugh was born at 8:29 in the morning on Nov. 2. Mandy thinks it was fate that she came in the 29th minute. That was the jersey number Mike was wearing when he died.
For two days, she sat in the hospital, agonizing over a name. The couple hadn't wanted to know whether the baby was a boy or a girl during the pregnancy, but Mike had sworn it would be a girl. The third morning, she woke up with the name in her head. She assumes Mike whispered it to her in her sleep.
He was always the one who woke up in the middle of the night, no grumbling, to change the diapers. Just like he was in Columbus and Round Rock and Omaha, Coolbaugh was the perfect teammate.Mandy sits in her home now, sandwiching naps for Anne between play time for the boys, feeling alone. Joey and Jake walk by the pictures, a young man in the sun staring back at them, and ask what team Daddy played for at the time. She tells them a baseball story and hopes they remember. "I just turned 33," she says. "My life's with Mike. I've never been the type of person who's wanted a lot out of life. I didn't strive to be career oriented. The thing I wanted out of life -- I wanted a wonderful marriage, and I wanted kids. It's been taken from me. I don't know what my purpose in life is anymore. That's scary. I was supposed to live it with him." Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.