Base coaches react to tragedy
Thoughts and sentiments shared after Coolbaugh's death
They stand without protection less than 90 feet from home plate, given less than a second to react to baseballs rocketing past them at speeds upward of 100 miles per hour.
Baseball's first- and third-base coaches have one of the most dangerous jobs in sports, yet little thought is given to the perils. Embarrassed coaches generally laugh off being hit while the jigs they do to avoid getting nailed offer amusement for sports highlight shows.
It is not until a tragedy like the death on Sunday night of Double-A Tulsa first-base coach Mike Coolbaugh puts the danger of a boys' game played by men in perspective; until a 35-year-old former Major Leaguer with a wife, two kids and a third on the way collapses on the field.
Coolbaugh, in his third week as the Drillers' hitting and first-base coach, died minutes after being struck in the left temple by a hard-hit liner off the bat of Tulsa's left-handed hitting Tino Sanchez.
"It's just a tragedy, it really is," said Red Sox third-base coach DaMarlo Hale. "It puts a lot things in perspective. ... I'll tell you this. I'll be thinking about it."
"Watch me tonight on the first five pitches," Dodgers third-base coach Rich Donnelly said. "I'll be twitching."
Across the Majors on Monday, first- and third-base coaches repeated a similar sentiment, speaking of the position's dangers, their defense tactics, past close calls and where baseball should go from here.
Ultimately, though, what resonated largest was the acknowledgment that this could have happened to anyone.
"I think the situation that happened yesterday is just going to be in the back of our minds," said Rockies first-base coach Glenallen Hill, who went to a helmet without ear flaps during Monday night's 7-5 victory over the Padres.
Said Red Sox first-base coach Luis Alicea: "It's a scary thing because sometimes you're so concentrated on the runner, you tend to take it for granted that you could get hit. A lot of times in a lot of parks, the glare, the fans, the stands, you don't really see the ball coming at you, because you're a lot closer than the first baseman sometimes."
Still, a near unanimous state of shock permeated baseball in the wake of Sunday's news.
"You never expect anything like this to happen. This has to be a fluke thing," Mariners first-base coach Gary Thurman said. "I have seen first-base coaches get hit by balls and have to move out of the way, but I have never seen anybody get hurt. Not a coach. I have never seen a coach get taken off the field on a stretcher."
Which might be remarkable in itself, when analyzing the dangers faced by coaches situated so intimately to sluggers of Schwarzeneggian proportions.
At first base, coaches are observing defensive alignments, talking to the runner, watching the first baseman and eyeing the pitcher's entire delivery. It is often not until the last split second that the coach can shift their attention to the hitter and their own safety.
If a line drive is coming their way, good luck.
"We just turn our heads, and in that split second, that line drive most of the time just misses you," Hill said. "If a guy squares up a ball and it's at you, you're getting hit. There's just no way around it."
Twins first-base coach Jerry White learned this in 1998 when a shot to the ribs sent him crumpling to the ground. Ever since, whenever a ball comes remotely his way, he instinctively puts up his hands to cover his face and turns his body to the outfield.
"I turn my back a lot," White said. "I've got my back towards the plate so I'm conscious every day about that since '98."
Such vigilance must be even greater at the other corner, where coaches can at times find themselves halfway down the line.
For instance, with runners on first and second, third-base coaches must be protecting the runner from a backdoor pickoff move in a position where the entire play is in front of them. Like the first base coach, they cannot focus on the hitter until the final millisecond. Yet here, there's even less time to react.
"Sometimes you look up and it is already by you. It's scary," Royals third-base coach Brian Poldberg said. "If it is coming right at you, you can't really get out of the way. You just have to sit there. You know that it is going to hurt."
As Mariners third-base coach Carlos Garcia said, "There are going to be close calls, and you just hope and pray that a ball doesn't hit you in the head."
That almost happened to Donnelly, who was once drilled in the back of the neck by Tampa Bay's Greg Norton. Only an 11th hour reaction spurred by his off-field hobby saved him.
"If it wasn't for my racquetball reflexes, I would have been dead," said Donnelly, who fell face-first to the ground. "The ball would have hit me right in the face. I turned just enough. I'm sure my racquetball reactions saved me. [Bench coach] Buddy Bell thought I was dead. ... The most fantastic world-class athlete can't get out of the way. I'm always fearful.
"Especially with a runner on second base, I'm up the line and less than 90 feet from the hitter. I watch every pitch and if you watch me, my first move is a quick twitch away. What happened is a tremendous tragedy. When I heard it, I got sick to my stomach."
Diamondbacks third-base coach Chip Hale faithfully studies the scouting reports of opposing pitchers before each series -- and not without self-interested intentions.
"You do anything you can, but the best thing to know is the guy pitching," Hale said. "If he's got a hard sinker for example, and for a right-handed hitter [like Eric Byrnes], you've got to be ready. ... We're definitely looking at scouting reports to try to save yourself."
So what drives these coaches to keep going back out there? A willingness to work in fear for some; the ability to stash away their worries for others.
"You can't sit there and think about getting hit," Rockies third-base coach Mike Gallego said. "You sit there and think about getting hit, I won't be doing my job. I trust my instincts and let them take care of me out there."
Said Poldberg: "You never think about it, because you always think you are invincible. But it is always a possibility whether you do or don't."
That rare possibility is why some feel Coolbaugh's death should prompt protective measures to be taken. Everything from helmets, gloves and protective caging fronting the corner coaches was thrown out there Monday.
"I'm sure it's going to be something that is brought up and I'm sure people will discuss it," Toronto third-base coach Brian Butterfield said.
So would coaches be open to change?
"A helmet, maybe, something like a catcher's helmet," Hill said. "I think that baseball should probably do something in regards to putting a net on the field level down the lines. I don't think that it would obstruct the view that much, and I think safety is the most important thing."
Then again, this is the first time something so devastating has occurred. Tragedies happen in all walks of life, and some ask if an impulsive response is necessary.
"If you stop and think about as many games that are played, from high school on up, to colleges, to summer leagues, and how many times do you hear [of this] happening?" said Marlins bench coach Carlos Tosca, formerly a third-base coach for Arizona. "It's an unfortunate incident, but the frequency of it may not be enough."
Yet no matter what is done to address the issue, there will never be room to relax. For the danger that comes with being so close to some of the world's most powerful men will not simply vanish.
"Unless you've been out there, you don't know how dangerous it is," Donnelly said. "They're going to try to come up with ways to protect us, but unless you put us in a phone booth, it won't work."
David Briggs is an associate reporter for MLB.com. Reporters Thomas Harding, Ken Gurnick, Conor Nicholl, Ian Browne, Jim Street, Joe Frisaro, Michael Schwartz and Gregor Chisholm contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.