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Books | Sports

June 29, 2009

Dealing with Tragedy in the Minor Leagues

When Mike Coolbaugh died on the field, the lives of his family members and of the man whose foul ball killed him were changed irrevocably. Sports Illustrated's Scott Price told their story.

Mickey Lambert

Baseball's minor leagues tend to serve as a holding vessel for a strange brew of players: gold-star prospects intermingling with fringe players on their last shot at making it; future superstars coached by former big shots. The only constant in this up-and-down struggle are the guys known as lifers—the Crash Davises of the world, who serve as informal coaches and mentors, as well as stalwarts on teams where today's starting pitcher might be playing on another team before he gets his four days' rest.

Scott (S.L.) Price. Photo by Simon Bruty.
"I kept thinking to myself, 'I'm hearing these stories that are so painful, so why do I feel good afterward?' "

Scott (S.L.) Price. Photo by Simon Bruty.

Mike Coolbaugh was a textbook lifer—a hard-luck journeyman who had a couple cups of coffee in the majors, before injury and other factors ensured that he would spend his prime baseball years grinding it out in Triple-A. At 34 years old, with two children, he decided to end his playing career in 2006. Just three weeks into his new career as a coach for the Double-A Tulsa Drillers, he was struck and killed by a foul ball off the bat of fellow "lifer" Tino Sanchez. Coolbaugh's death from a one-in-a-million foul ball was, unquestionably, the most brutal imaginable culmination of a baseball life marked by near-misses. The incident prompted then-Rockies outfielder Willy Taveras to remark, "This baseball game will break our heart."

In his new book, Heart of the Game: Life, Death, and Mercy in Minor League America, Scott (S.L.) Price takes a long look at the kind of heartache that Taveras refers to—both the immediate anguish faced by Sanchez, as well as by Coolbaugh's stricken family—but also the essential dolor of the minor leagues and the struggle that is so deeply woven into its everyday workings. By recounting the story of two lifers, Coolbaugh and Sanchez, and how their lives so tragically intersected, Price tells the tale of the triumph and tragedy of the minors as a whole.

S.L. Price is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, and has written two other books to date, Far Afield: A Sportswriting Odyssey, about his year spent in the South of France covering European sports, and Pitching Around Fidel: A Journey into the Heart of Cuban Sports, an account of contemporary issues in Cuban sports. (Price talked about each book in earlier interviews with Gelf.) In this interview, conducted by phone and edited for length and clarity, Price talks about the eerie coincidences around this terrible accident, the experience of interviewing friends and family members of both Coolbaugh and Sanchez, and how the compassion and forgiveness shown by so many in relation to this tragedy shed some needed light on an otherwise dark tale.

Gelf Magazine: What initially inspired you to write Heart of the Game? You had already written a feature piece for SI on the incident, "A Death in the Baseball Family."

Scott Price: Yeah, I was in the middle of working on another feature-length story in late summer 2007 when my editor asked me to do another feature on this. I was sure from the get-go that I wanted to speak to Tino—he hadn't really had the chance to tell his side of the story yet. I met with the Drillers team on the day that Tino had returned from Puerto Rico; [Drillers manager] Stu Cole had been pretty protective of him before he went down there, but he had said that he was ready to talk and Stu also agreed. The Drillers were playing the Frisco RoughRiders that night; Scott Coolbaugh was their first-base coach, and Tino had no idea at the time.
In any case, I interviewed Tino for almost two hours that day, and as it later became clear to me, I'm fairly certain I was the first person he really had spoken to at length about the incident since it happened. He really hadn't spoken about it with his father, his mother, his wife, or anyone else close to him back home in Yauco, Puerto Rico. He opened up to me so much—the depth of his emotion was so evident and incredibly meaningful. It was at that point that I wrote "Death in the Baseball Family," but for the first time since I started at SI in 1994, I really felt like a 10-page piece was nowhere near big enough to really tell the story—I had over 50,000 words of notes already at this point.

Gelf Magazine: Had no one really interviewed Tino before you at that point? It seems like his story is the one that most writers would want to tell.

Scott Price: It's possible that he may have commented to someone else, but as far as I am aware, I was the first writer to interview him about the incident. He had gone back to Yauco pretty soon after Mike died, and even before that had been really shielded from the media and reporters. So we talked for two-plus hours, and at the end, he thanked me. I thought that I should be thanking him—this was one of the greatest interviews I had done in my life. But later, when I went to Puerto Rico to interview his mother, father, and wife, I realized from their statements that he had not talked about it to them at all, and that they had not pressed him about it, wanting to give him his space. I'm sure he had commented to other people—he sought counsel and support from the team minister—but it appeared that prior to my interview with him in early August, he had not spoken to anyone at length about it, not even his closest confidantes. So it's not about any prior omission of his piece of the story; in fact, I want to be clear—the immediate reporting on the story was top-notch. Elizabeth Merrill wrote a great story for, and local press did a great job on this as well. The immediate news of the incident had already died down by the time I began working on the piece for SI; I was really looking for other perspectives and viewpoints that hadn't yet been covered.

Gelf Magazine: What struck you as particularly important about this story? In what ways do you think it's a prism or a lens through which to view the culture of the minor leagues more broadly?

Scott Price: There are so many components to this story that make it incredibly compelling, as well as a particularly apt allegory for the minors as a whole. The shared experience of being a "lifer" brought a particular perspective of interest into the story—especially as Mike had essentially taken Tino's informal position as a Drillers coach when he came in at the beginning of that July. If Tino had been a relative newcomer to the minors, had he not been indoctrinated in the lifer code he shared with Mike, I think the story might not have been as compelling. So much of that code is about taking personal responsibility, and if Tino hadn't had the reaction to the accident that he had—which was directly related to his assumption of full responsibility for it—I don't know that the story would have been the same. But this story really didn't need to be forced at all—it was straight from the guts and the hearts of the people involved. I really wanted to write a book about American sports, and I have a particular love for minor-league baseball. It's very different from the love I have for major-league ball. This was an opportunity to tell the stories of people who might never be written about on a national scale.

Gelf Magazine: There is a strong equation of minor league ball with Americana, and a throwback to how things "used to be." Yet this story is a sharp departure from that narrative.

Scott Price: There are so many clichés about the minor leagues—that it's the distillation of all that's good about small-town American life. This story was a departure from that whole hagiography—the themes are more complex, but so much more readily apparent and deeply rooted. There seems to be a desire to view the minor leagues as a kind of antidote to the ills of Major League Baseball, but if you really look at it, those ills are formulated and entrenched in the minors. The use of performance-enhancing drugs is absolutely rooted in the minors, out of the desperation to succeed. Tino Sanchez talked about how that desperation drove him to use PEDs, for which he tested positive. You've got guys that are just hanging on with whatever they've got, trying so hard to move up instead of down. There's a real brutality to this game that is really encapsulated in the stories of guys like Mike Coolbaugh. He gave his life to the game of baseball—and 17 years to the minors—and the game killed him.

Gelf Magazine: It seems like there's almost an anticipation of injustice there, coupled with an expectation that because that injustice is part and parcel of the game that players should not be affected or impacted by it.

Scott Price: It fosters a real love-hate relationship in so many guys. No lifer, I don't think, has ever felt in his heart of hearts like he's been given a fair chance to succeed—and, truth be told, many—most—haven't. On the whole, the cream tends to rise to the top, talent-wise, but the guys who command big signing bonuses get many, many more breaks, if only so owners can justify paying out those bonuses. It means that guys who are really "Quad-A" players—like Mike Coolbaugh—need to understand their value in different ways, even as they are working and waiting for their shot at bigger things.

Gelf Magazine: The pressure to perform in that context—what might be the one and only shot at major league success—is just huge; it almost seems to preclude the possibility of success.

Scott Price: It is a huge amount of pressure, and to a certain extent, players in that position are almost being set up for failure. The politics around who gets how many chances to succeed is absolutely a factor, and it makes the pressure to perform incredibly intense. That being said, neither Mike nor Tino was destined for major-league stardom; at best, they were both role players. Tino was not even as good a player as Mike—he never made it above Double-A—but at some point, all these guys were stars. It can be an incredibly bruising process when life hits you, and you realize that your value is something you need to define and prove, rather than it being assumed.

Gelf Magazine: So what is the value of a marginal minor-league lifer? How does that kind of player promote the recognition of that value, and understand it himself?

Scott Price: Well, to the team, a top-notch minor-league player fills seats and sells tickets, especially as fans of the team get to know his name. In addition, most of the lifers tend to act as club players, informal coaches, and mentors to the young guys on the way up. They set the leadership tone for a developing squad. Really, as a lifer, you have to be able to prove your worth and be a good guy—otherwise you're just expendable. Tino learned that early on—he was a cocky, hot-headed player who didn't want to be told what to do, and blamed everyone else when he did not succeed. His coaches really slapped him down and let him know that he was writing his ticket out of baseball. He really took that to heart.
In terms of defining one's own value to oneself in that position, I'm reminded of Mandy Coolbaugh telling me that she couldn't help but love that her husband was the big guy, the star of the team. She hated when he stopped playing for that reason. That kind of recognition can be both wonderful and a trap—the taste of glory can leave you hungry for a higher level of success.

Gelf Magazine: Hard work and perseverance don't always pay off—the vast majority of minor leaguers will never achieve major-league stardom, regardless of how committed they are. With those odds, why do so many players stick around for so long?

Scott Price: Well, there's the fact that many guys don't really know anything else—they've been playing baseball their whole lives, and are really all in at this point. Some players become coaches after their careers are over, not for the love of the game or desire to remain a part of it, but because it's what they know, and because they have families to feed. There can be a lot of resentment there, especially when you've spent a career being passed over for other people—you both feel happy for them and angry that it wasn't you.

Gelf Magazine: In Far Afield, you talk about the abject cruelty that is in the heart of every great athlete—to beat another man, to revel in a vindictive defeat, even under the guise of friendly competition and sportsmanship. How do you think that jibes with the world of merely human athletes like Coolbaugh and Sanchez? Did they not become great athletes because they lacked this kind of competitive instinct? It certainly seems as though they are both intensely competitive men.

Scott Price: To a certain degree, they lacked that essential cruelty, it's true. It's not all that—neither of them had the level of talent to be major-league superstars—but to some extent, it is attributable to that lack of killer instinct. Virtually all great athletes have it, no matter how magnanimous they may appear in public. There's a certain delight that they take in unmanning someone, in beating them in public. Wayne Gretzky is the only truly great athlete I've seen that really lacked it. Coolbaugh and Sanchez were definitely really competitive guys, but at the end of the day, they cared more about being team players and family men over being the best of the best.

Gelf Magazine: It's interesting that you say that, because your colleague at SI, Jon Wertheim, just wrote Strokes of Genius about the Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal tennis rivalry. One of the major points of his book was how Federer has so much talent, but so little killer instinct.

Scott Price: Someone like Federer is so physically talented that he doesn't even need the killer instinct, but I do think he's also shown a lot more courage and fortitude than he gets credit for. You do have world-class athletes that also do have that intensely competitive drive—take Michael Jordan. He just delighted in beating the crap out of people on the court. He was a bastard that way, and he also had the otherworldly physical talent to back it up. For most elite athletes, though, I'd say there is that sense of competitive overdrive motivating them.

Gelf Magazine: In that context, I was surprised to learn that when Mike Coolbaugh became the hitting coach, he essentially supplanted the informal role that Tino took on after the former hitting coach quit. How did that go over?

Scott Price: Tino is so ensconced in the narrative of the lifers' code—go with the flow, don't take things to heart, the only thing you can control is your own behavior—that he really worked to understand and accept being passed over yet again. Of course, I think it hurt him, but he dealt with it very well and professionally. Tino was really transformed so much by the game, really changed at his core; Mike, though a better player and more experienced, really wasn't as shaped by it. I think that the similarities between Mike and Tino—both lifers, oriented toward being team players, helping out, both family guys to the core—made it considerably easier. They had genuine respect for one another. Mike knew that Tino was working as a de facto hitting coach; I'm not sure if Tino ever explicitly said that he was passed over for the job, but I'm sure Mike knew, and he went out of his way to thank Tino for the help he gave during Mike's first days on the job.

"This was an opportunity to tell the stories of people who might never be written about on a national scale."
Gelf Magazine: It's also incredibly eerie that so many people who were there the night of the accident had also dealt with serious injuries related to baseball. Bo McLaughlin, the Drillers' pitching coach, had his playing career ended by a line drive off the bat of Harold Baines. Jon Asahina, a Drillers' pitcher, not only had suffered a cracked skull on that same Arkansas field just three months earlier, but in an act of ineffable symbolism, took Coolbaugh's spot as the first-base coach in the Drillers' first game back.

Scott Price: So many people connected to the story had their own stories to tell—Bill Valentine, the former Travelers' GM who was in broadcast booth that night, was the home-plate umpire the night that Tony Conigliaro was hit. Warren Stephens, who built the Travelers' stadium, Dickey-Stephens Park—his dad, Jack Stephens, had his own baseball career ended by a line drive. Also, there's a story in the book about Tino accidentally hitting Clint Hurdle, the Rockies' manager, in the face with a baseball while horsing around during major-league spring training—it got him demoted. That experience was actually a huge turning point for him in terms of maturity.

Gelf Magazine: The kind of transformation you've talked about with regard to Tino seems to be represented in his handling of Mike's death and his role in it.

Scott Price: He took a great deal of responsibility for Mike's death, which I think has both helped and hurt him. He's really internalized the principle of personal accountability—the "it's on me." I think that that kind of emotional response really helped the Coolbaugh family understand how much Mike meant to him, and the impact that his death has had on Tino. And for himself, I think that taking on that kind of emotional burden helped him in keeping a sense of personal integrity in the face of the incredible guilt he was feeling. It seems, though, that he's been having real trouble stepping at all back from it, and that it's preventing him from moving forward.

Gelf Magazine: It also seems that having an entirely internalized locus of control—where everything that happens to you is solely your responsibility—has the possibility of masking truth, or preventing issues with a broad impact from surfacing.

Scott Price: Absolutely, when taken to the extreme. But this kind of approach is a survival tactic in this kind of environment, with all the pressure to perform and succeed. If you always think you're getting screwed by a larger system, you'll never make it—you'll get eaten alive. In order for these guys to make it, they had to feel as though they were really the ones in control of their own destinies, and act as though that were true all the time.

"The way that Mike's family reached out to Tino—and his response—was entirely genuine, and it wasn't always a storybook moment."
Gelf Magazine: The weight of that responsibility—and the emotional impact of Mike's death—show up really clearly in his interactions with the Coolbaugh family.

Scott Price: There was a real sense of shared emotion between Tino and the Coolbaugh family, a raw grief and sorrow over Mike's death. The way that Mike's family reached out to Tino—and his response—was entirely genuine, and it wasn't always a storybook moment. It was a heroic act of compassion and understanding, and it wasn't motivated by any kind of desire for public attention. They didn't do it because they thought they'd be on Oprah.

Gelf Magazine: There seemed to be a combination of incredible mutual understanding and empathy, and a real awkwardness around the emotional intimacy forced by the situation at hand.

Scott Price: The moments of their interactions were so deeply human. It was a sacred moment that I witnessed, when Mike's sister Lisa and sister-in-law Susan approached Tino. There were no other reporters around, no cameras. They did not know I was there—it was the night that I was interviewing Tino for the first time. I tried to represent it as truthfully and nakedly as I could, and not dress up the moment—I didn't need to. It was perfect just as it was.

Gelf Magazine: What was it like for you to interview Tino, Mike's wife Mandy, his parents?

Scott Price: Oh, it was absolutely brutal. I mean, I can only say that I have the greatest respect for every single person I interviewed in connection to this story. Each person went above and beyond the call of duty to tell their piece of the story and to give of themselves, even as their stories were intensely personal and painful. I spoke with Austin O'Shea, the Drillers' trainer who was the first person to attend to Mike after he was hit, and who had to inform players and staff that Mike had died. He, and everyone else I spoke to, were just incredible—they are telling this unbelievably painful stories with incredible thoughtfulness and aplomb. I think they were all so committed to telling Mike's story with love and care, and to getting him the recognition they felt he deserved.

Gelf Magazine: It must have been pretty incredible, hearing each person's narrative and what Coolbaugh's death meant to them.

Scott Price: Honestly, every conversation was wrenching, but I felt both wrung out and good at the same time. I kept thinking to myself, "I'm hearing these stories that are so painful, so why do I feel good afterward?" It was incredible to hear from all these people who had been through so much, and who had shown one another incredible kindness and compassion—even when it was difficult and awkward. The level of courage displayed was extraordinary. I'm sure it was nowhere near as hard for me to hear those stories as it was to tell them—I think it was probably helpful in some way, but not as helpful as it was painful. The whole thing is so emotional—I was on tour promoting the book in San Antonio, and Mandy and the boys came to the reading. That was a really incredible experience. I went to a Drillers-Travelers game a while back, and spoke to Austin O'Shea, as well as Steve Barga, who was the home-plate umpire the night that Mike was killed. There are so many people who are connected to this story in such intimate ways—when the space exists for them to come together and talk about it, it's a pretty amazing experience. The reading I did in Tulsa became like a therapy session; at one point, this woman raised her hand, and introduced herself as the mother of the guy who was on deck when Tino hit the line drive. She said that when she told her son that she was going to the reading, he immediately began to cry. There is such a sense of collective emotion around this story, and a shared experience of what it means.

Gelf Magazine: Have you spoken with Tino Sanchez at all recently? Is he still coaching, or playing with any Puerto Rican teams? Do you think he might still be playing if not for the accident?

Scott Price: I spoke with him around Christmas, to help get photos for the book. I actually spoke more with his dad, Tino Sr.. who told me that Tino was having a particularly rough time with the holidays. He is going to school with a scholarship that was part of his signing package with the Rockies, and he and his wife Angie just had another baby girl. He was coaching a bit when he first retired from playing, but he's backed off a bit—he's busy with school, and being around baseball seems pretty hard for him right now. I'd actually love to send him a copy of the book—no obligation to read it, of course, but I hope it would be helpful to him. Tino Sr. told me to send it to him, because he's going to have to learn to live with what happened and it might help to read it.

Mickey Lambert

Mickey Lambert is a sports fan and occasional writer who lives in Brooklyn.

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Article by Mickey Lambert

Mickey Lambert is a sports fan and occasional writer who lives in Brooklyn.

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