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Death and life in the minors

A wrenching tale of a tragic, freak accident and its aftermath

Tino Sanchez, after his return to Tulsa in August 2007. Mike Coolbaugh’s jersey hangs behind him. Tino Sanchez, after his return to Tulsa in August 2007. Mike Coolbaugh’s jersey hangs behind him.
(Darren Carroll/Sports Illustrated
)
By Brion O’Connor
October 11, 2009

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Judging a book by its cover is the cardinal sin for a reviewer. But the photograph that adorns “Heart of the Game’’ is riveting. It shows Mike Coolbaugh, a long-time minor league baseball player, his uniform-clad back to the camera. In his arms are his two young sons, Joey and Jake, each with a hand on their father’s broad shoulders. Knowing he’s gone, killed in one of baseball’s most freakish accidents, brought me to the edge of tears.

Yet this is where veteran Sports Illustrated writer S.L. Price weaves his magic. Genuine and raw, “Heart of the Game’’ is a heartfelt work of despair, triumph, and redemption. Price presents the lives of two minor league “lifers’’ - Coolbaugh and Tino Sanchez - on a cataclysmic collision course with the unerring eye of a superb journalist and the grounded sensitivity of a poet. True, there is a sense of dread permeating Price’s book, but his prose never turns maudlin. We know the ending isn’t happy. But to stop reading would be far worse, tantamount to quitting on a man who never quit himself.

“Mike kept playing after his dream died because he had a family to feed,’’ writes Price, describing Sanchez’s first impressions of Coolbaugh. “Mike has a passion tempered - inflamed, even - by rejection and pain.’’

Essentially, Price takes a sound-bite tragedy and begins digging, dissecting it. The short story is this: Coolbaugh’s life was cut short on a warm July night in 2007 in a pristine new ballpark in North Little Rock, Ark. At 35, he was less than month into a new coaching career after struggling for 17 years in professional baseball, mostly in the minors. He had been appointed hitting coach for the Double-A Tulsa Drillers (a Colorado Rockies affiliate), and was still getting comfortable in this new environment, serving as first base coach that star-crossed night. Then, lightning struck. With a swing of his bat, Sanchez sent a foul ball rocketing 90 feet down the first base line. It struck Coolbaugh flush in the neck, just behind his left ear. “Its report was muffled, moist, like an ax sinking hard into a patch of rotten timber,’’ writes Price.

Coolbaugh was killed instantly. The moments, days, and weeks that follow are absolutely gut wrenching. Sanchez, a native of Puerto Rico who had hoped to get the coaching job won by Coolbaugh, reached him first, even before the first baseman or the first-base umpire. Back home in Texas, Mandy Coolbaugh was pregnant with the couple’s third child, a daughter. In the hills of Yauco, Puerto Rico, Sanchez’s wife Annie was also expecting a daughter.

Throughout, Price is respectful but never fawning. It’s clear that, while he may have approached the project as a journalist, he developed an admiration and deep respect for those whose lives were irrevocably altered that July evening. He describes Coolbaugh’s taskmaster father, the spirited sibling rivalry with older brother Scott, the seismic shift in his family’s faith and foundations, and the reverberations felt through the entire Colorado Rockies organization (Red Sox fans will recall the sweep of the Rockies in 2007; what they don’t know is that the Colorado players unselfishly voted Coolbaugh a full $233,505 share).

Price delights in exposing the inequities of minor league ball, as if hoping to balance those scales of injustice. While the general consensus is that our national pastime is as wholesome as Grandma’s apple pie, Price torches the myth and rips open the game’s seedy underside. “Minor league baseball is an endless winnowing process,’’ he writes. “Cast for months into a confined space where people are promoted, demoted, traded, and released every day, where today’s teammate is tomorrow’s memory, players literally live with rejection. No one can truly relax; even the most secure prospects sense the insidious thrum of fear.’’

But in these players, and many of the long-time coaches and scouts, Price finds many admirable qualities: perseverance, integrity, humility, grit, patience, compassion, and, yes, even love. “There are so many clichés I could rattle off,’’ says Matt Miller, the Drillers left fielder who heard Mike’s last words. “But what I’ve taken away is: You’ve just got to respect what you do. Mike obviously loved baseball, and if he wasn’t a baseball player he could’ve done something else and been just as passionate. That’s important. That’s what I want to incorporate in my life. Whatever you want to do, go after it with passion. Just don’t quit.’’

The role of faith, or fate, or any celestial connection in Coolbaugh’s life and death, of course, remains a mystery. “God had a plan for Mike,’’ Mandy says, “and there was nothing we could do to stop it.’’

The challenge is to keep reading through the tears and the inevitable swell of sorrow. But you will. Like Coolbaugh, like his family, like Sanchez, you won’t quit. You’ll finish it. And afterwards, there’s a very good chance that you’ll look at your own world a bit differently, with more appreciation. As strange as it might seem, given the tragic nature of Coolbaugh’s story, you’ll feel better for having allowed Price to share it with you.

Boston-based writer Brion O’Connor can be reached at brionoc@verizon.net.

HEART OF THE GAME: Life, Death, and Mercy in Minor League America
By S.L. Price
ECCO, 320 pp., illustrated, $24.99

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