I was browsing around today on ESPN, bored out of mind, trying to pass the time on a hot and steamy day here in southern Missouri.
I came across an article that reawakened a sad and tragic story. It was the story of career minor-leaguer and AA coach, Mike Coolbaugh.
One year ago today, Tulsa Drillers coach Mike Coolbaugh headed out to do what he did in the 18 previous games, on an inning-to inning basis: coach first base. It was the top half of the ninth inning, signaling the end of another road game, meaning it was one game closer to getting home and seeing his family.
With a man on first, Coolbaugh’s focus turned to keeping his player from getting picked off, and delivering those coaching quips all baseball players are familiar with: “Freeze on a line drive”, “Make sure it gets through”, etc. Fellow Driller Tino Sanchez stepped up to the plate, and subsequently scorched a foul ball up the first-base line.
What happened next was beyond anyone’s wildest nightmares.
Mike was drafted in 1990 by the Toronto Blue Jays, starting a journeyman’s career through the minor leagues. He bounced around with nine different organizations throughout his 17-year baseball career, reaching the major leagues on two separate occasions with the St. Louis Cardinals and the Milwaukee Brewers.
I had personally seen Mike in action some 10 years ago. It was in 1998 and Mike was currently playing with the Colorado Rockies' AAA affiliate, the Colorado Springs Sky Sox. I grew up in Colorado Springs, and my father resides there, making summer trips possible every year.
One of my favorite things to do while visiting is going to watch the Sky Sox play, whose stadium is located not five minutes from my father’s home. Tickets are extraordinarily cheap, and the atmosphere of minor-league baseball is unlike anything else.
I was only 11-years old at the time, but I distinctly remember one player: Mike Coolbaugh. Not because of his play, or anything spectacular that happened on the field. Rather, the similarity between his last name and mine.
I would get excited every time I heard his name announced, hoping he would have a big night. My father and I must have attended more than a handful of games that summer.
I recall that unique atmosphere of minor-league baseball, particularly Sky Sox Stadium. The locker rooms are located at the top of the bleacher terraces, and the players must walk parallel to fans on the concourse, and then down a long set of stairs to get to the field.
As a kid, I often waited to get autographs or maybe even a high five. I never even realized it until years later, but Mike Coolbaugh has graciously signed a baseball for me, and currently sits on a shelf in my father’s home.
My permanent home is located in Missouri, about an hour south of St. Louis. I had since forgotten about Coolbaugh and my excitement for him. That was until 2002, when he signed with the St. Louis Cardinals.
While watching a Cardinals broadcast, out came the introduction: “Now batting, Mike Coolbaugh”. All I could do was let out a joyful laugh and think of Sky Sox baseball with my dad.
He quickly disappeared back to the minors, but he would always be one of my sentimental favorites.
In his 17th and final season, a fastball rode in on his hands, shattering his wrist, ending his playing career, and turning him down the road to coaching.
Throughout his life, Mike was always a family man. He had a wonderful wife, Mandy, and had two kids, Jacob and Joseph. A third was on the way, and he was beginning his new found life as a minor-league baseball coach. Life looked good after his playing days were done.
Players adored him. He was a down to earth guy who really connected with the players. His family roots were apparent in the way he handled his fellow Tulsa teammates.
So there he was, on a mid-July night, doing what he was born to do: share his baseball wisdom and guide the young, minor leaguers through their journey to the big leagues.
Then, in the blink of an eye, it was all over.
Tino Sanchez got around on an inside pitch and put a nice swing on the ball. Sanchez got every bit of it, and unfortunately for Mike Coolbaugh, who was busy counseling the baserunner, he never saw it coming.
The ball struck Mike in the neck, just below his ear, rupturing an artery.
Not one hour later, Mike was taken from the world.
This whole situation was ironic you see, as Mike Coolbaugh was always concerned with the dangers of foul balls. Not so much with the players, but more so the fans. He knew that it was only a matter of time before someone got hurt.
Mandy Coolbaugh cries everyday that her husband is gone. Tino Sanchez walked away from baseball after the trauma he had to experience. Teammates, friends, family all wondered the proverbial “why him, why Mike?”
Here we are one year later, to the day.
I didn’t write this article to talk about the widespread impact Mike’s death has had in the world of baseball, which has since required base coaches to wear helmets.
I didn’t even write it in light of seven-year-old Dominic DiAngi being struck by a foul ball, which fractured his skull, but it is a constant reminder of what Mike Coolbaugh feared.
I’m writing this to remind people that sometimes we get too caught up in something so simple as sport. Next time someone presents a petty argument over what college football conference is superior, don’t let it get to you.
I’m writing this to remind you that at any time it could be over. Not even Mike could prevent his untimely passing with his ever substantial concerns of foul balls.
I’m writing this to remind people to tell those close to you that you love them every single goodnight, goodbye, or for no reason at all. Mike never met his third child, Anne, and left behind the family he loved so much.
I’m writing this in memory of a man who takes me back to summers with my dad; a man who lived his life the right way, being a loving husband, father, friend, and teammate; a man who was gone far too soon.
I’ll never forget you Mike Coolbaugh.
To read more on the Mike Coolbaugh story, I highly suggest this article: A Death in the Baseball Family