Baseball reacts to Coolbaugh's untimely death

Mike Coolbaugh, shown here playing third for Houston in March 2005, (Tony Dejak/AP)

July 23, 2007 6:16 PM

As news spread of the tragic death of Mike Coolbaugh, reaction came pouring in from throughout the baseball community.

Colorado Rockies: Coolbaugh had two different tours with the Rockies organization. The first one came in 1998 as a player. The second came recently as he was making his transition to coaching with the Tulsa Drillers, Colorado's Double-A affiliate. Both times, he made an impression.

"I played with him here in '98," said Vinny Castilla, now a special assistant to Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd. "In Spring Training, I got to know him a little bit. He was a hard worker, a great guy. We got to know each other a little bit because he was a third baseman and we'd take ground balls together. It's sad, sad.

"Back then he was 25-26 years old. We talked a lot about defense. [Special assistant to the GM] Walt Weiss was telling me that he was talking to him in Tulsa, and he talked about me, how I talked to him about taking balls on both sides (forehand and backhand). I talked to him about fielding a lot."

Several of the players now in Rockies uniforms got to know Coolbaugh in the Astros organization. Reliever Taylor Buchholz recalls Coolbaugh being a steadying influence on him when he first arrived from the Phillies via trade.

"I played with him two years after I got traded there," Buchholz said. "He was a fun teammate to have around, a great guy, a great person. You were always laughing around him. He was a good guy to talk to.

"I was actually having trouble when I first got traded over there, my first year in Triple-A. I actually got to sit down with him and ask him his thoughts about pitching, because he had been through it. He was a hitter, but he knew what I was going through and he helped me out through tough times. He just pretty much calmed me down for the most part. I'm always a little excited out there on the mound, and he just said, 'Go out there and be yourself.'"

"I spent Spring Training with him with the Astros. He was very nice," outfielder Willy Taveras said. "It is sad, just sad news. Wow. He was a good person. He had a lot of fun, but I never had a chance to play with him. I saw him this spring and he was real nice to me. He was very young, 35 years old, and that happened. This baseball game will break our heart."

Rockies manager Clint Hurdle didn't have the lengthy history with Coolbaugh that some of his players have, but he formed a bond with the new Tulsa hitting coach almost immediately.

"He's a good man," Hurdle said. "I spoke with him July 4th for about 20 minutes when he joined our organization. He was headed from his home in San Antonio to join the Tulsa ballclub. We had some common fabric: He has a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old and his wife is pregnant. So we talked about kids. We talked about the relationship and demands as a father and as a coach and he was so excited. He's been excited since he's been a part of this. He was revisiting our organization because we had him as a player. And there are so many organizations that he's been a part of that I'm sure will reach out and try and help. He loved the game. We don't have any answers now. We'll try and understand. We'll try to present ourselves in a positive light be there for whatever we need be."

"It's been a tough day," Hurdle continued. "It actually started last night. I got a call from Dan O'Dowd about 11 o'clock and he shared the tragic information. As an organization, we've tried to put our arms around the issues and the challenges confronting the Coolbaugh family. We just want to be there unconditionally with support and love and try to help them work their way through it." -- Thomas Harding, C.J. Moore

Toronto Blue Jays: Blue Jays manager John Gibbons was hit hard by the news of Mike Coolbaugh's untimely passing. Gibbons has known Coolbaugh's family for years, which made hearing about the unfortunate incident difficult to absorb.

"That wakes you up, because that's a guy out on the field," said Gibbons, who met Mike Coolbaugh through his brother, Scott. "He's involved in a baseball game and he loses his life."

In 1989, Gibbons and Toronto pitching coach Brad Arnsberg were Minor League teammates with Scott Coolbaugh in Oklahoma City. Mike Coolbaugh, who was drafted by the Jays in the 16th round of the 1990 First-Year Player Draft, was originally from Binghamton, N.Y., but he later moved to San Antonio, Texas, where Gibbons lives.

"That's a tragedy," Gibbons said. "They settled in San Antonio. So, we know the family. ... They live on the other side of town now, but we used to live fairly close. I used to workout a little bit with Scott."

Gibbons plans on calling Scott Coolbaugh to offer his condolences to him and to his brother's family. Mike Coolbaugh leaves behind his wife Mandy, who is expecting a child in October, and their two young sons, Joseph and Jacob.

Gibbons spent time as Toronto's first base coach during the 2003-04 seasons, so he can understand what might have happened. When a runner is on base, a first base coach has to keep an eye on the first baseman at times, which means his attention is away from the batter.

"It's scary," Gibbons said. "I remember coaching first base, sometimes you take your eye off the hitter, because you're watching the runner or you're watching the first baseman. I don't know what the circumstances were."

Blue Jays third base coach Brian Butterfield also took the news hard.

"I don't know what happened," Butterfield said, "but I know that there's been several times where I haven't seen the ball very well. If you ask [Toronto first base coach Marty Pevey], he's come back and said, 'I didn't see that ball very well at all.'

"It's such an unfortunate thing. That really touched my heart." -- Jordan Bastian

Milwaukee Brewers: A number of Brewers players and coaches expressed sadness about the death of former Brewer Mike Coolbaugh.

Coolbaugh, 35, made his Major League debut with the Brewers on July 16, 2001 after playing parts of 12 seasons in the Minor Leagues.

"I remember that being a really big deal," said Brewers pitcher Ben Sheets, a rookie in 2001. "I think we were all excited for him."

Outfielder Geoff Jenkins is the only other current Brewer who was with the team in 2001. Former teammate Brooks Kieschnick called Sunday night to pass the news to Jenkins, who had similarly fond memories of Coolbaugh.

"I remember him as a guy who played 10-plus years to get to the Major Leagues, and that takes some perseverance," Jenkins said. "You always hear people make the statement that, 'He died doing what he loved.' But to die coaching first base? Just doesn't seem right. I don't even have any words for it. I can't believe it happened."

Coolbaugh played in 39 games for the Brewers, batting .200 (14-for-70) with two home runs while manning shortstop and third base. He played in five more games with the Cardinals in 2002.

"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 chain.

"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 [Monday] morning." -- Adam McCalvy

Houston Astros: The news of Coolbaugh's death hit especially hard in the Astros clubhouse.

Coolbaugh, the former third baseman who played 17 Minor League seasons, signed a Minor League contract with Houston on July 9, 2003, and played the duration of that season with Double-A Round Rock, before playing all of 2004 and 2005 at the Triple-A level. He was the MVP of the then-Triple-A Round Rock team in 2005, hitting .281 with 27 home runs and 101 RBIs.

He also went to big-league Spring Training with the Astros twice, and as recently as this spring, he interviewed for a coaching position within the Houston Minor League system.

Coolbaugh was a certain September callup for the Astros in 2005, and should've been part of the first championship team in Astros baseball history. But two weeks before his Minor League season ended, his wrist snapped after he was hit by a pitch and his season ended prematurely.

"I felt sick to my stomach," Astros general manager Tim Purpura said of his reaction to the news of Coolbaugh's death. "He was a great baseball guy and a great dad. He's somebody who loved the game and was the consummate professional.

"Thinking about it, the hard time for me is 2005. I remember sitting with Phil [Garner] when we sent him out of big-league camp. And he asked, 'Should I just forget about this? Should I give it up?'

"And I said, 'No, Coolie, you're a good player. You just need an opportunity.' So he went off to have a monster year, was MVP, but unfortunately had his hand broken. We were going to call him up in September. There was no doubt about it. I felt so bad for him."

Second baseman Chris Burke spent time with Coolbaugh in each of those three Minor League seasons, and he remembers him as someone much like himself.

"He was one of the first guys I played with that was a real veteran hitter," Burke said. "Our styles were very similar. We're both analytical. We spent hours talking about the game and at-bats and situations. I very much enjoyed my time playing with him, and I learned a lot from him. It's a shame, because he probably would've had a great career in coaching. It's a sad day.

"He and I both had fathers that were extremely passionate about the game, so we'd share stories all the time about our dads not talking to us after we didn't get a hit. Mike was like a self-admitted grump. It was kind of funny. He'd walk in and say, 'Don't talk to me today. I'm in a bad mood.' But he had such a big heart. Everybody knew he'd give you the shirt off his back. He cared a lot about the game and was a terrific player."

Reliever Chad Qualls spent time with Coolbaugh in 2003 and 2004, and credits him with the development of his two-seam fastball.

"He was just loved by the baseball community," Qualls said. "You see so many faces and names, but that part of your life, you remember. He helped me quite a bit when I was starting to throw my two-seamer. From a hitter's aspect, he'd tell me why it was such a good pitch and what I needed to improve."

Coolbaugh and Eric Bruntlett played together at Triple-A New Orleans in 2004, and Bruntlett recalls the third baseman taking on a leadership role.

"He was one of the guys who helped out with the younger guys a lot," Bruntlett said. "He had been around the game a long time.

"You don't think going to the ballpark that that's a possibility. "I've never heard of anything like that happening. It's a terrible tragedy."

But more than anything he did on the field, it's the impact of Coolbaugh's death on his family that weighs first on the minds of his former teammates.

"Everybody's just devastated," Burke said. "The family involved -- his wife, Mandy, is a really sweet lady. They've got two boys and another child on the way, so it's just a really tough situation. I just keep putting myself in her shoes. You think your husband is going to a baseball game, and next thing you know someone calls you and tells you that he's dead.

"It's a tough deal, and it's one that I find myself asking myself a lot of questions about. I don't know if this has ever happened before in the history of the game, and the fact that it happened to Mike Coolbaugh is a pretty tough pill to swallow.

Luke Scott played with Coolbaugh in 2004 and 2005, and he fondly remembered the dedication Coolbaugh had to his family.

"He was a great teammate," Scott said. "An all-around good guy. I just remember he always had his kids around. He always took time to hang out with his family and play with his kids."

In Round Rock, where Coolbaugh played for parts of two years, a collection was taken for the Coolbaugh family at the home-plate and right-field gate entrances of The Dell Diamond prior to Monday night's game between Round Rock and Oklahoma.

All donations collected will go directly to a fund set up for the family at Spirit Bank in Tulsa, Okla. In addition, all fine money from the Texas League, plus an additional $1,000 from each of the league's eight teams, will go toward the fund. --Ben DuBose

New York Yankees: Coolbaugh spent two seasons playing for the Columbus Clippers, the Yankees' Triple-A affiliate. Manager Joe Torre, from having him in Spring Training, remembered a guy who would do anything to stay on the field and anything to help his team win.

"You can liken to him a couple of guys on this club, an Andy Phillips-type guy," Torre said. "He'd do anything to make the club. He's a guy who if you asked to catch, he'd say yes. A lifer, basically. He just wanted to stay in the game because he had that personality. It's just a tragic, tragic thing. It's just horrible." --Brian Hoch

New Orleans Zephyrs: It wasn't just Major League teams reacting to the news of Coolbaugh's death. Over the course of his 17-year-career, he made quite an impact on Minor League communities as well.

After signing late in the 2003 season with the Astros organization and finishing the year in Double-A Round Rock, Coolbaugh reupped with Houston in 2004 and headed to its Triple-A club, then in New Orleans. He proceeded to hit .295 with 30 homers and 82 RBIs in 123 games, tying a single-season franchise record for home runs in the process. He's remembered in the Big Easy as much for his class and worth ethic as he is for his power.

"The New Orleans Zephyrs are saddened to learn of the death of Mike Coolbaugh [Sunday] night," Zephyrs general manager Mike Schline said. "Mike was a member of the 2004 New Orleans Zephyrs. He was a fan favorite who provided exciting play and sportsmanship on a nightly basis. The Zephyrs will honor his memory with a moment of silence [Tuesday] night before the game. Our prayers go out to his entire family."

MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo, C.J. Moore, Thomas Harding, Brian Hoch, Adam McCalvy and Jordan Bastian contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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