For Coolbaughs, Series helps healing process
Fallen ballplayer built enduring legacy with Cardinals, Rangers
"I am experiencing a pain of unimaginable magnitude. As one friend commented, I could not foresee making it to this day two years ago. I know and believe in my heart that our love is stronger than death. Our love is eternal ... and there are days when he feels so close, like he is right here with us. I know that Mike's heart warms with each special tribute, and the many wonderful things that have been done to help his family in dealing with this situation. I know he is grateful for the people in our lives."
ST. LOUIS -- Mandy Coolbaugh wrote those words in this space two years to the day after her husband was killed. Mike Coolbaugh was coaching first base for the Tulsa Drillers on July 22, 2007, when a foul line drive struck him in the neck, resulting in a ruptured artery. Coolbaugh died later that evening, leaving behind his wife, two sons and an unborn daughter.
The ensuing outpouring of support, Mandy Coolbaugh admits, was unexpected, radiating from every corner of the baseball community. It came from former teammates and past coaches, from players who met her husband only briefly, from friends that she did not realize she had. It came in varied forms. It came from the Rockies, Mike Coolbaugh's final employer; from the Cardinals, one of two teams to give him a chance to play in the Majors; and from the Rangers, whose ownership group controls the Triple-A Round Rock Express team for which he once starred.
Two of those teams, the Cardinals and Rangers, are now competing in the World Series, preparing for Game 6 in St. Louis. This conflicts the Coolbaughs. Watching every game with her children in San Antonio, Mandy Coolbaugh frequently sits down her two sons to explain the connections between various players and their father.
Her oldest, nine-year-old Joey, has adopted the family stance of rooting for crisp hitting, sharp pitching and few failures. He pulls for Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, Lance Berkman and Michael Young in particular, because each of them holds a direct link to his dad. He roots for the Rangers because their hitting coach, Scott Coolbaugh, is his uncle.
Recently, Joey described those allegiances as only a nine-year-old can.
"This must be what it's like to play in heaven," Joey told his mother, "because Dad probably doesn't want anyone to lose."
"As I was sitting there with our children just a few nights ago, looking past the players on the field toward my husband's jersey number, the man sitting beside me told me that he comes into the stadium every day, sees Mike's number and prays for us."
The Mike Coolbaugh Memorial Golf Tournament takes place each November in south-central Texas. Originally a vehicle to support Coolbaugh's family in the immediate aftermath of his death, the event has since expanded to help other young widows and families cope with unexpected loss.
Relying on sponsors ranging from individual benefactors to international businesses, the tournament suffered a significant setback two years ago, when one sponsor provided little notice in reneging on a $1,000 commitment.
Learning of the situation, Pujols, the Cardinals' first baseman, donated $5,000 to the tournament, then flew to Texas to attend the event. A teammate of the man for just two months during Spring Training in 2002 and a handful of games later that summer, Pujols sought out Coolbaugh's children during the event to tell them stories of their father.
"For me to see that, it was hard for me not to cry," Mandy Coolbaugh said.
Pujols has provided financial support for the tournament ever since.
Such is the effect that Mike Coolbaugh had on people -- on friends he knew for decades and teammates he knew for weeks. When Major League Baseball offered Holliday, then a Rockies outfielder, a $7,500 charitable grant for his Roberto Clemente Award nomination in 2007, Holliday donated the entirety of it to the Mike Coolbaugh Memorial Fund. He and his teammates later voted to award Mandy Coolbaugh a full playoff share worth $233,505.
A year and a half after meeting Pujols, Mike Coolbaugh signed on with the Astros, spending his summer at Round Rock and reporting to big league camp the following spring. There, he met Berkman, who organized regular bible study sessions for interested players and coaches.
"He was one of those guys that played great in Triple-A, and it just didn't seem like he ever got a chance to play in the big leagues," Berkman recalled. "But he was never bitter about that. He just went about his business and played well when he had the chance."
Pujols, Holliday and Berkman all play for the Cardinals now, clustered together in the middle of their lineup. Mandy Coolbaugh and her children cheer for each of them.
And yet, Mike Coolbaugh's influence is not limited to the people who knew him personally. One past attendee of the family's golf tournament was the Rangers' Young, who spends his offseasons in the Dallas area -- a nine-hour round-trip drive from San Antonio.
With Young batting cleanup for the Rangers this week, Mandy Coolbaugh showed her children a photo they snapped after meeting him at the tournament. In such ways, she has used the World Series as an opportunity to relate to her children stories of their father's baseball connections, using Young as a particular example of comportment.
"He had his family at home, and yet he took this day because it was important to him," she told her children. "I tried to show them how in this world, the things that matter in life are the relationships that you have with people and reaching out to other people. That's hard to explain to a seven- and nine-year-old. But I feel blessed that these role models that they have -- they are good guys. They're really good guys. And it's always nice to see the good guys win."
"Every time I see an ambulance, I fear someone else may experience this hurt -- and it never goes away. Each day, I answer questions that my kids pose. And I wish Mike were here to help me answer them. They range from, 'Does daddy stay the same age in Heaven?' to 'How does he see that double I hit?' or simply asking, 'Can you spike my hair the way daddy did?'"
Five months before Mike Coolbaugh died, he and his wife attended a funeral service for her cousin, Patrick Glaude. Glaude had served as a firefighter on the Virginia coast, and in attending his memorial, the Coolbaughs found themselves struck by how proactively the firefighting community rallied to remember one of their own.
Shortly thereafter, as he had taken to doing frequently late in his life, Mike Coolbaugh meditated on the experience. He wondered out loud how people might remember him if he, too, passed away.
In that fashion, Coolbaugh spoke often with his wife about existentialism and love for family throughout his final months. Mandy Coolbaugh, who became pregnant with the couple's daughter around that time, passed it off as a midlife crisis.
"In hindsight," she said, "I think something was preparing Mike to let him know that something was going to happen."
It happened in Little Rock, Ark., in the ninth inning of a game against the Arkansas Travelers. The Rockies had hired Mike Coolbaugh three weeks earlier to coach first base for their Double-A affiliate in Tulsa, giving him his first professional coaching job. The game was still fresh for Coolbaugh, whose playing career had ended the previous summer when he broke his wrist.
With a Drillers runner leading off first, Tino Sanchez hit a sharp line drive toward the coach's box, where it struck Coolbaugh in the neck, just below the left ear. An autopsy later showed that the ball compressed his left vertebral artery, which runs up the spinal column and provides blood to the brain, against the base of his skull. Doctors pronounced him dead about an hour after impact.
Two years later, with Mandy Coolbaugh and her children in attendance, the Round Rock Express retired Mike Coolbaugh's No. 32 jersey during an emotional in-game ceremony, unveiling its image on Dell Diamond's left-field wall. The team's owner, Reid Ryan (son of Hall of Famer and Rangers president Nolan Ryan) first met Coolbaugh as a University of Texas recruit in the late 1980s, reuniting with him during Coolbaugh's stints in Round Rock as a player.
Ryan has become an important figure to the Coolbaugh family, extending an invitation for them to visit Round Rock any time. Greeting Mandy Coolbaugh and her sons at the ballpark, Ryan takes the boys to the clubhouse, where they each fill a baseball sock to the top with candy, much as Ryan himself did during his father's playing career.
"I can't say that I've done anything spectacular," Ryan said. "I've just treated Mandy as I'd hope someone would treat my wife if something happened to me like that. I know how much of a grip the game of baseball gets on you when you've been it. That's who Mike was. And I didn't want the kids to lose that.
"It would be really easy for the kids to hate the game of baseball, but they don't."
"I know that Mike's heart warms with each special tribute and the many wonderful things that have been done to help his family in dealing with this situation. I know he is grateful for the people in our lives. Mike would never in a million years have imagined the many honors he has received and the way his story would touch so many."
All Major League base coaches are now required to wear helmets on the field as a result of Mike Coolbaugh, whose death prompted the league to reexamine its safety guidelines. What strikes Coolbaugh's wife even now is that when he was alive, he preached constantly, almost obsessively, about the dangers of foul balls.
"It's so scary," Mandy Coolbaugh says. "I'm still hoping that things change. I'm hoping that we can protect fans or at least bring an awareness about foul balls. Because baseball should be a fun game. It's a family game."
This is something she has come to understand better. Her husband was a fringe Major Leaguer in his playing days, more anonymous than celebrity, with enough talent and opportunity to stick in the Minors but never quite enough to make a lasting impact. His career took him from outposts in Alberta, Canada, to Huntsville, Ala., Colorado Springs, Colo., Round Rock and beyond. At times, the frustration must have blanketed him.
"I think a lot of people relate to Mike's story," Ryan said. "Mike was a guy who put up great numbers in the Minor Leagues but could never really bust that glass ceiling of making nice money, playing every day, having security in life. I think everybody involved feels the pain of someone like Mike who was a really good player, but always seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Baseball easily could have forgotten Coolbaugh in the wake of his death, and yet the opposite became true. Support flowed from unseen channels, from so many places where he once set foot.
"I think it's reflective on the baseball community as a whole," Berkman said. "When something happens like that to one of your own, you'll definitely see that outpouring."
Never has the evidence been more apparent than in this year's World Series, featuring so many of the people who have helped the Coolbaughs cope. There are the players on both sides who have provided financial and spiritual support since Coolbaugh's death. There is Ryan, whose Rangers connections took deeper root when his father purchased the team last summer. There is Texas executive Jay Miller and St. Louis scout Kerry Robinson, both friends of the family. There is Scott Coolbaugh, who was unavailable for comment, but was one of his brother's closest confidants.
"It's fun to see all those guys who have some connection with my husband," Mandy Coolbaugh said. "It makes me feel like there's a piece of baseball that we're still a part of. And for my boys, that's very healing. That's extremely healing."
Come Game 6, the Coolbaughs will again be watching from their home in San Antonio, as they have throughout the World Series. And they will again be rooting. The Coolbaughs will be rooting for the Rangers, and they will be rooting for the Cardinals, appreciating how many people on both sides have rooted for them.