Through Coolbaugh's loss, a legacy
Book on tragic death depicts life in professional baseball
S.L. Price's work, "Heart of the Game: Life, Death, and Mercy in Minor League America" is more than just another baseball book being released. It's a legacy, an heirloom that can be handed from a father no longer here to his children.
The book, officially released on Tuesday, tells the story of Mike Coolbaugh, the longtime Minor League veteran and new coach who was tragically killed by a foul ball in July 2007. But Price goes much deeper than that, weaving the Minor League veteran who hit the ball -- Tino Sanchez -- masterfully into the story while digging deeply into the joys and heartaches of the game of baseball. There's a reason why the Coolbaughs and Sanchezes of the world kept coming back year after year, and Price manages to capture the very essence of the game in that regard.
The lives of everyone involved in the tragedy were changed instantly, Price writes. Coolbaugh left behind his two boys and his wife, Mandy, who was pregnant with their third child. To the Coolbaugh family, the book is so much more than a retelling of what happened on that tragic night.
"It's a big insight I wouldn't have been able to explain to my kids," Mandy Coolbaugh said. "I can't ask for more. I see that perfectly with the book. I'm happy with the feeling you walk away with. As tragic as it is, it's still a feel-good story. He loved his life, and he loved baseball." Price first wrote about it -- the incident, the families involved -- in a Sports Illustrated piece. When he was done reporting the story, he had over 50,000 words of notes and knew the space in the magazine couldn't do the story the justice it deserved.
"In doing my research for it, there was a bunch of reaction from around the league," Price said. "Willy Taveras said this quote that stuck with me: 'This baseball game will break our heart.' There was something about that that animated me throughout the writing of the story. The expectation and knowledge of this heartbreaking side to the game that didn't really take them by surprise. It's such a tough existence for these guys. As much as there's ups, there's a lot of down to it. They're taught to accept that and part of baseball's code."
Perhaps no one accepted that more than Coolbaugh, who played nearly 1,700 games in the Minors and hit 258 home runs, but got just 82 big league at-bats on his resume before retiring and embarking on his coaching career. Often overlooked as a player, it's unfortunate that it took the tragedy that occurred in Little Rock, Ark., nearly two years ago to get him his due. But both the author and the family understood the importance of letting people know what Coolbaugh stood for while he was alive.
"I think Mandy has been incredibly eloquent with everyone she's spoken to," Price said. "There's an effort on their part, they want to give Mike the recognition that was passed over him while he was alive.
"The depths of their pain speaks to how much they loved him. Mandy is an extremely open person, especially in terms of her feelings with Mike. They wanted to tell his story. They didn't want him to be lost or to just go away."
Mandy Coolbaugh came to that realization quickly. Members of the media assembled on her doorstep almost immediately after her husband's death, and that was extremely difficult to deal with, especially for someone who didn't always feel comfortable expressing herself publicly. But she understood just how essential it was for her to tell his story whenever possible.
"I realized right away what good could come of it," she said. "I realized instantly I needed footage for my kids, so I started talking to people. As hard as it is for me to speak about Mike, I'm doing this for my kids. Twenty years from now, I want them to be able to read about this, so I did open up right away.
"Mike was just such a great guy. I wanted everyone to know who he was, especially my kids."
As touching as the story from the Coolbaugh side is, Price says that he's not sure the book would have come together if it hadn't been for the sincerity and openness of Sanchez. A Minor League lifer himself, Coolbaugh took the hitting-coach job Sanchez had been eyeing. Yet because of their shared experiences, there was no jealousy or bitterness between the two, with Sanchez helping Coolbaugh get acclimated to the job. That likely increased the grief Sanchez felt for being so directly involved.
"I think they understood each other only in the way lifelong Minor Leaguers could," Price said. "There was a generosity at work through the pain [of not getting the job]. That's what you do in baseball; that was born of their experience in the Minor Leagues.
"If Tino had not felt the depth of pain and anguish that he still feels today, I don't know that I would have done the book. I don't think I would've been able to explore it or deal with the pain of the Coolbaugh family. The fact he took it upon himself spoke volumes of his respect for who Mike was."
Anyone who reads the book will undoubtedly come away with the same respect, and that's exactly what the Coolbaugh family hoped for when opening up to Price. They want Mike's name to continue to help people however possible. The Mike Coolbaugh Memorial Golf tournament (for more information, visit www.coolbaughmemorial.com) not only helps raise funds for Mandy and her three children, but it keeps his name in the public eye and has allowed her boys to play with people who knew their father well.
There are plans to hold a baseball clinic specifically for children who have lost a parent. Mandy Coolbaugh remarkably wants to work through her grief by helping others as well and talks about working to help children and widows dealing with bereavement. She feels she's been blessed with a wonderful support system and wants to lend that kind of aid to others who don't have it.
"I feel like I've been put into a position where I can help other people and inspire people the way Mike did," she explained. "I don't want people to see his name and say, 'Oh, that's that poor guy.' I want to keep my doors open, help other people in the way that I can."
The release of the book should certainly help in that endeavor, as people learn that the Mike Coolbaughs and Tino Sanchezes of the baseball world are more than just blips on the radar. They are, as the title suggests, the very heart of the game. Mandy Coolbaugh hopes the book will allow people to understand that in a way that may not have been possible in the past.
"I want people to remember Mike, and I want them to have a smile on their face and say, 'Wow, look at what this guy did.,'" she said. "Mike wondered what impact he would make. I think he's smiling up in heaven and saying, 'Wow, look what I did.'
"I don't think he'd want it to stop. He'd want to keep inspiring, in terms of baseball, raising a family, being a father. I heard from fathers whose families were falling apart, who heard Mike's story and decided to return and try to work things out. That's all I can ask. If Mike changed their lives, that's a good thing."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.