Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Mike Coolbaugh, 1972-2007

On Sunday night, in an event which some speculate will lead to some major changes for baseball, but will most likely lead to a couple of minor modifications and then perhaps be forgotten more quickly than it should, Mike Coolbaugh, 35, was killed by a batted ball. Coolbaugh, a former big leaguer for the Milwaukee Brewers and St Louis Cardinals, was coaching first base for the Double-A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies, the Tulsa Drillers, when backup catcher Tino Sanchez rocketed a foul ball down the first base line. Coolbaugh was unable to get out of the way of the ball in time and it struck him in the head. He was tended to on the field by the medical staff from both teams and the in-stadium doctor, but he never regained consciousness and died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.

Coolbaugh was drafted in 1990 in the 16th round by the Toronto Blue Jays. He played his first two years of professional baseball in St. Catherines, then the Jays low-A affiliate. He played for the Jays for 5 years and then bounced around through other teams systems, putting together a couple of very fine seasons in 1997 and 2000. In 2001 Coolbaugh signed with Milwaukee and played for their Triple-A affiliate in Indianapolis. After 1,215 games in the minors (my count has about 1,152, but I’ll defer to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel) on July 15, 2001, Coolbaugh was finally promoted to the big leagues after demonstrating a level of perseverance most draftees never show. Coolbaugh played in 39 games for the Brewers in 2001 and 5 more for the Cardinals in 2002, but that was the only taste of major league action he ever got. Coolbaugh played minor league baseball through the end of 2006, which included two more very good seasons in 2004 and 2005, totaling 1,632 minor league games and 5,860 minor league at-bats. He retired at the end of 2006 and only joined Tulsa as a hitting and first base coach on July 3, after the previous coach resigned mid-season.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel has a couple of nice articles on Coolbaugh, which make it clear how much he simply enjoyed playing baseball and how happy he was when he finally got his chance in the majors. From the first article:

Geoff Jenkins and Ben Sheets, the only two players on the Milwaukee Brewers' current roster who played for the team in 2001, remembered how excited Mike Coolbaugh was to get to the major leagues that July after spending 12 years in the minor leagues.

"There was a lot of perseverance in him," recalled Jenkins. "I remember how proud we were for him that he finally made it."

Coolbaugh was so excited about finally getting his chance to play in the majors for the Brewers that he reported to the ballpark at 7 a.m. for a day game on July 16. He played 39 games with Milwaukee that season, batting .200 with two homers and seven RBI.

The article also touches on something else that’s apparent about Coolbaugh, which is how devoted he was to his family and his two, soon-to-be three, young children, who are now left without a father.

Coolbaugh played only five more games in the majors in 2002 for St. Louis. He returned to the minors and continued playing until retiring after the 2006 season. He had recently taken the job as coach for Tulsa at the urging of his sons, Joseph, 5, and Jacob, 3.

Coolbaugh also is survived by wife Amanda, expecting their third child in October.

"We were going to be done with it, but his kids wanted to see him (coach)," Amanda Coolbaugh said. "You couldn't have asked for a better father. He just paid attention to the boys, put them in clubs and sports . . . volunteered time on their teams."

And here’s an excerpt from a Journal-Sentinel article from the day Coolbaugh was promoted to the majors. h

It was barely 8 o'clock Sunday morning when Mike Coolbaugh tried on his Milwaukee Brewers uniform for the first time.

When you've been waiting 12 years to make it to the big leagues, it's never too early to suit up.

"I wasn't sure what time to be here so I got here about 7 a.m.," Coolbaugh said. "The security guy drove me around in a golf cart and gave me a tour of the place. I had a good time."

One hardly could blame Coolbaugh for trying to soak it all in during his first day as a major-league baseball player. The 29-year-old infielder never actually gave up on his dream of making it, but after a dozen years go by it's only natural to have doubts.

"A lot of guys would have quit and gone on to something else," Brewers manager Davey Lopes said. "This is a guy who really battled."

Coolbaugh was preparing for batting practice when Indianapolis manager Wendell Kim walked up and told him to pack his stuff and head for Milwaukee. "I couldn't breath for, like, five minutes," he said. "I asked, 'Are you serious?' I couldn't believe it."

The only frustration Coolbaugh experienced on his big day was trying to contact his parents, who were visiting relatives in upstate New York. They didn't have their cell phones activated, so the excited Coolbaugh was forced to leave messages.

"My parents still don't know," he said. "But my wife (Amanda) was visiting her sister in Chicago, so she's coming here."

Coolbaugh isn't exactly sure where he ranks among those who have played the most games in the minors before getting that first big-league assignment.

"I'm sure I'm in the top 10," he said confidently.

And from MLB.com:

"What a hard worker," said Brewers hitting coach Jim Skaalen, who was Milwaukee's roving hitting coach in 2001 and got to know Coolbaugh. Skaalen managed Coolbaugh's brother, Scott, in the Rangers' Minor League system.

"I always admired Mike's work ethic and that he was always a consistently upbeat guy," Skaalen said. "He was labeled one of those 'Four-A' players but he was never bitter about it. Some of those up and down players have a lot of bitterness, but it was nothing but positive energy every day from him. It brought a tear to my eye when I saw the news this morning."

Coolbaugh's death is also relatively unique in couple of aspects. Not because three young children are left fatherless, because unfortunately that happens dozens of times a day across North America. It is unique because it's the first death on a major league baseball field in decades. And it's also an example of how the deaths of people in certain occupations affect their friends and coworkers far differently than others. Although Coolbaugh was a new coach for the Drillers, he still fits this example due to his 16-year minor league career, and Josh Hancock, the St. Louis Cardinals pitcher who died earlier this year in a drunk driving accident, is another good illustration of how the deaths of professional athletes differ from those in many other jobs. Not all jobs, but it's certainly very different from going to work in a cubicle in an office environment, no matter how much you may socialize on coffee breaks or while lining up to use the only photocopier not malfunctioning.

I think it's difficult for the layperson to appreciate the camaraderie in professional sports, which is perhaps strongest of all in baseball because of the length of the season and the number of games. When soldiers speak of losing a member of their platoon, they often say how the deceased was like "a brother" to them and how the army is a "family." For a long time I didn't really get what they were saying, until I realized the strength of the bond that is formed between men who spend 6-12 months of the year together, fighting an enemy in a foreign country. I can't really appreciate what that bond feels like, but now I understand why they called the army their family and their fellow soldiers their brothers.

Professional sports are a lot like that, I think. Not to the same degree as the army at all, as the bond there is strengthened by trusting your life to your fellow soldiers doing their jobs and following their orders, but it's inevitable that spending long amounts of time together with a limited group of individuals is going to make many of them very close to one another. Baseball players show up for spring training in mid-February and play through the end of September. Through the end of October if there team is in the playoffs. That's 8, sometimes 9, months a year where players get maybe 3 days off a month (more in February and March, but young players who are fighting to make the roster don't get many days off and veterans who don't play as many games still have to show up for workouts and training almost every day). The other 27-28 days they spend about 8-10 hours at the ballpark, often showing up at about 2 pm for an evening game and leaving around 11. And what do they do? They workout together. Pitchers jog with pitchers. Outfielders field fly balls with outfielders. Infielders practice double plays with other infielders. Catchers scout opposing hitters together. They hit batting practice in groups of 4-5, which they keep for the entire year. They lift weights together, jog together, and stretch together. They sit around in the clubhouse while the other team hits BP together.

During the game, starting pitchers not starting that evening sit together on the bench, charting opposing hitters and shooting the shit. Bench players sit together. The 6 or 7 guys in the bullpen sit in the bullpen every game. Baseball's not end-to-end action like some sports and there's a lot of time for bench players to discuss anything under the sun. After the game, if the team is on the road, players often go out, to eat or drink or do something else. Again, these are group activities. If it's 11:15 on a Wednesday night in Baltimore and you need something to eat after a game, are you going to do it by yourself or grab 3 buddies? During homestands, if the player has a wife and children, they will often come to stay with them during the summer months, particularly when the kids are off school. However, young and single players spend even more time together, as they often share a large condo or a house and spend the majority of off-time together, as well.

This account may not hold true for every MLB athlete (and athlete in general), because I'm sure there are some who are not very social and others who prefer other things to going out most evenings, but I think this account is fairly true for most MLBers and one can't deny that during a full week of games MLB players probably spend about 70 hours together with the same 30 or so guys at the ballpark and an additional maybe 10 to 35 hours with a small group of them during off-time from March through the end of September. This is more than hockey players, basketball players or football players. It's not quite analogous, but imagine taking an 8 month road trip with 30 other guys. Some you might not like very much and others you may be indifferent towards, but you're bound to become very close a number of them. Sure there'll be times when you grow sick of even your best buddies, but over the length of the season there will be some incredibly strong friendships that grow out of that. This strong bond is why deaths of active professional athletes devastate not only their family, but their friends and their entire team.

And, here’s a nice article on four ex-Expos who came back to Ottawa for a charity softball game and gave some Expos fans a lifetime highlight.


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