Reviews

"That can kill a guy."

--Mike Coolbaugh

"The last baseball games out west will be finishing late, in stadiums filled with strangers, and by morning all will know who won and who lost."

--S.L. Price

Split seconds and fractions of inches. On July 22, 2007, Mike Coolbaugh was killed by a baseball hit by Tino Sanchez during a Class AA minor-league game in North Little Rock, Arkansas. Coolbaugh was coaching first base for the Tulsa Drillers -- his 18th game with the ball club after a journeyman's career chasing his dream to play Major League Baseball -- when the wicked line drive viciously struck him.

 

heart_of_game
May 2009; Ecco, An Imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers
"The impact of the ball crushed Mike's vertebral artery - which carries blood from the spinal column to the back of the skull - against the left first cervical vertebra, at the base of his skull," writes S.L. Price in Heart of the Game: Life, Death, and Mercy in Minor League America.

In dual biographies of Coolbaugh and Sanchez -- along with research into tragedies that have occurred in the game due to players being struck by balls and a number of eyewitness accounts from the fateful July evening -- Price delivers a stunning exploration on the personal drive, bitter disappointments and the lure of the diamond that ultimately brought them together.

By the time Coolbaugh ended his pro playing days, he had played for nine different organizations and on 19 different teams in a 17-year career that included a mere 44 MLB games. The 433rd pick of the 1990 June draft by the Toronto Blue Jays, he was served first his cup of pro-grade coffee in 2001. The Colorado Rockies made Sanchez their 342nd selection of the June 1997 draft, but his career had stalled due to a number of personal and professional issues. Tulsa's parent club is the Rockies.

Price weaves through the politics of pro baseball -- where a player's career may hinge on one vote in a room filled with team management and an unwritten code can derail a former player from finding a coaching job in the low minors -- with the biggest variable in the machinations of the expansive draft being a scout who has the courage to shout above the noise from his brethren. Particularly interesting is a section on Al LaMacchia -- who scouted for Cincinnati, Philadelphia, the Braves, Toronto, Tampa Bay and the Dodgers -- and what he saw in Coolbaugh that made him feel he had a future in the game.

A recap of the Tulsa season in 2007 finds an April 26 incident versus the Arkansas Travelers where a Tulsa pitcher suffered a fractured skull when he was struck by a line drive. Yes, it was the same teams in the same location. Coolbaugh, age 35, was not with the club at that time; he was hired in midseason after a coach abruptly left the club. Sanchez, then 28, was in his fourth stint with the Drillers, though he also spent a very short time with the Class AAA club in Colorado Springs.

The days leading to the fateful game have Coolbaugh and Sanchez perched at the crossroads found inside the clubhouse of life. Both had pregnant wives -- the women would each give birth to a girl -- and are facing a new set of priorities away from the ballpark; for Coolbaugh, in San Antonio, Texas, and in Puerto Rico for Sanchez.

But the tragedy will forever link their lives. One pitch and one swing in the immaculate Dickey-Stephens Park, a ballpark that would have been the envy of most pro clubs in seasons that are distant replays for historians; and most definitely in 1920, when Ray Chapman of the Cleveland Indians died after being hit by a pitch thrown by Carl Mays of the New York Yankees. After the 2007 season, MLB announced that base coaches would wear helmets starting in 2008. The rule remains in place, but the game is not quite the same.

AHP Rating: 4 Balls

AtHomePlate.com writes its book reviews with the following rating scale in mind:
Four Balls: An exceptional book that truly earns a walk straight to the local book store to get a copy.
Three Balls: This book stands out from its peers and is highly recommended.
Two Balls: A book worth reading/owning and is usually above average.
One Ball: This book has something to say but is nothing special.