Human beings suffer freak injuries. Sadly enough, there are deaths that, with the passage of time, we can label as "freaky." Then there's what happened to Mike Coolbaugh in Little Rock on July 22nd.
Coaching first base for the Tulsa Drillers in the ninth inning of a game against the Arkansas Travelers, Coolbaugh was struck in the neck by a line drive -- a foul ball, in the ugliest possible sense -- off the bat of Tino Sanchez. Within minutes, after on-field CPR failed to resuscitate him, Coolbaugh was dead. Age 35, with two young sons and his wife expecting their third child in October, Coolbaugh was sent to his grave by a stray baseball. A week has now passed and I, for one, am still hurting.
I hope there are other Memphis baseball fans who are aching over the loss of a man who will unfortunately be remembered -- in baseball terms only -- as a "career minor leaguer." Coolbaugh had already played 12 professional seasons when he first suited up as a Redbird in 2002. Having once driven in 132 runs as a Double-A player, Coolbaugh was among St. Louis Cardinal manager Tony LaRussa's final spring-training cuts that year. He had played his first 39 major-league games for Milwaukee in 2001, hitting a meager .200 with a pair of home runs. But Coolbaugh arrived at AutoZone Park with a smile that lasted the next five months.
Playing with such popular Redbirds as Stubby Clapp, Keith McDonald, and So Taguchi, Coolbaugh was easy to overlook. Even his 29 home runs -- sixth most in franchise history -- were overshadowed by the 35 Ivan Cruz hit. Coolbaugh played a solid third base for Memphis manager Gaylen Pitts. Think about that: third base, the hot corner. Every time Coolbaugh took the field, he was expecting -- wanting -- a line drive to be hit his way.
The 2002 Redbirds had -- what else -- a mediocre season, finishing 71-71, only three games out of first, but still last in their division of the Pacific Coast League. Promoted for five games with St. Louis, Coolbaugh had a solitary hit in 12 at-bats, his very last in the big leagues.
Just this summer, Coolbaugh hung up his spikes and took a job as hitting coach with the Drillers. (Let's hope the Tulsa franchise -- the Colorado Rockies' Double-A affiliate -- has the decency to change what now has to be the most macabre nickname in American sports.) Having tried so long to fulfill his own dream, Coolbaugh devoted the last few weeks of his life to helping younger players improve their chances of fulfilling the same dream. And, it goes without saying, he did so with a smile.
I called my mom -- who else? -- last Monday morning, not knowing how exactly to cope with this kind of tragedy, the circumstances of which finally merit the overused word-of-the-century, "unbelievable." How do we mourn someone not exactly family, not exactly friend, not exactly -- let's be honest to his memory -- hero? The ache is too severe to ignore, but what comes next?
I chose simply to remember. On June 9th, 2002, I sat on the leftfield bluff at AutoZone Park when Mike Coolbaugh hit a two-run homer with two outs in the ninth inning to beat the Oklahoma RedHawks, 5-4. I jumped for joy with my 3-year-old daughter in my arms, Sofia covering her ears as the "home run bombs" went off beyond the centerfield wall. Stubby was Sofia's favorite player at the time, but it didn't take long to explain and define the word "cool," as in game-winning home run, as in Coolbaugh.
The best way I know to salute this fallen champion is to do what he did so often himself, and what my family did -- thanks to him -- that hot afternoon five years ago. Remember the name Coolbaugh. And, through the tears, smile.