Mike Coolbaugh lived for baseball. But just weeks into his coaching career with the Tulsa Drillers, he died because of it.
The 35-year-old died Sunday night after a foul line drive hit him in the left temple while he was coaching first base in the ninth inning of a Texas League contest between the Drillers and the host Arkansas Travelers.
He reportedly lost consciousness and stopped breathing. CPR was administered on the field before he was brought to Baptist Medical Center in North Little Rock, Ark. He was pronounced dead at 10:47 p.m. ET according to a spokesman for the Little Rock police Department.
The game was suspended and a decision was made since to officially end it as a 7-3 Travelers victory. Tulsa's Monday night's scheduled game in Wichita also was canceled.
On July 3, Coolbaugh joined the staff of the Drillers, the Double-A affiliate for the Colorado Rockies, replacing Orlando Merced as the team's hitting coach. In the top of the ninth inning, Matt Miller led off with a single. Perhaps focusing on Miller at first, Coolbaugh did not have time to get out of the way of Tino Sanchez's line drive.
He leaves behind his sons, Joseph and Jacob, as well as his wife, Mandy, who is expecting the couple's third child.
"As a teammate, he was top notch," said Round Rock Express pitcher Travis Driskill, who played with Coolbaugh in Round Rock, the Astros' Triple-A affiliate in 2005. "But the best way I could describe him is he was a family man who happened to be a baseball guy. His family came first, his sons and the future baby. I'm sure that was what, ultimately, he was always thinking about."
Efforts are already being made to help the family. The Tulsa Drillers Baseball Club and Spirit Bank in Tulsa, Oklahoma have set up a memorial fund to benefit the Coolbaughs. Checks can be made payable to the Mike Coolbaugh Memorial Fund and sent to:
Mike Coolbaugh Memorial Fund
c/o Spirit Bank
1800 S. Baltimore Ave.
Tulsa, OK 74119
"Our entire organization grieves at the death of Mike Coolbaugh," Rockies team president Keli McGregor said in a statement. "We were shocked and deeply saddened to learn of the accident on Sunday evening. Mike was a great husband, father, brother and friend to so many throughout the baseball community. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family, wife Mandy and sons Joseph and Jacob, and to all of those whose lives were touched by Mike over his career and his life."
Coolbaugh had just stopped playing the game following the 2006 season. A broken wrist last year may have led to the decision, though he had explored playing in Mexico this spring. A standout shortstop at Theodore Roosevelt High School in San Antonio, Coolbaugh was taken in the 16th round of the 1990 draft by the Toronto Blue Jays. His older brother, Scott, now the hitting coach for the Frisco RoughRiders in the Texas League, had been a third-round pick of the Rangers just three years earlier. Al LaMacchia was scouting for the Jays back in those days and he remembers an infielder with some definite promise.
"I thought he had a lot of potential with his bat," said LaMacchia, who is still scouting for the Los Angeles Dodgers even though he just celebrated his 86th birthday Sunday. "He was an outstanding young man who was so into baseball. I liked this kid since I first saw him as a sophomore in high school. You knew he was going to give it a maximum effort. He was a pretty good athlete too. He was a quarterback in high school and probably could've gone to college as a football player. But he wanted to go out and play baseball."
He did just that, playing for the St. Catharines Blue Jays in the New-York Penn League in 1991 and 1992. He made his full-season debut with Hagerstown in 1993 and started to show some of that offensive potential with 16 home runs, a number he duplicated up a level with Dunedin in 1994. Following the 1995 season, he was taken by the Texas Rangers in the Rule 5 Draft. He spent just one season in their system, hitting a combined 19 home runs and 36 doubles.
His true breakout came the following year, in 1997, after signing a Minor League free-agent deal with the Oakland A's. Playing for Huntsville in the Southern League, Coolbaugh hit .308 with 30 homers and 132 RBIs to establish himself as a legitimate power-hitting run producer in the Minors. It wasn't enough, however, for the A's to bring him back and he signed with the Rockies for 1998 and played in Triple-A for the first time.
From there, he spent the 1999 and 2000 seasons playing for the Columbus Clippers, the Yankees' Triple-A affiliate in the International League, hitting a combined 38 home runs while getting less than 400 at-bats in either season. Then, finally, he got his chance in 2001. He had signed yet another Minor League free-agent deal with the Brewers prior to the season and began it in Triple-A Indianapolis. In the middle of July, the parent club needed some help and 11 years after being drafted, Mike Coolbaugh was finally in the big leagues.
He got 70 at-bats with Milwaukee that summer and while he hit just .200, he did pick up a pair of big-league home runs, the first one coming in just his second big-league game.
"We came to know Mike both from his time with the Brewers and the Texas Rangers organization, and the news has hit us very hard," said Brewers special assistant to the general manager and director of player development Reid Nichols in released statement. "Mike was a kind and hard-working individual who lived life and played the game with great passion. He will be greatly missed."
In 2002, it was on to another organization, the St. Louis Cardinals, for whom his brother had also played. He got 12 more big-league at-bats that summer, but spent most of the year with Triple-A Memphis, hitting 29 more home runs in 411 at-bats. He would never reach the big leagues again.
"He went out and played with our organization and never reached the top," LaMacchia said. "He finally got there with Milwaukee and St. Louis. When he finally got to the big leagues, I was happy for him. He should've gotten more time, but that's one of those things. He had maybe a half-year, but at least he got there."
And it appeared he never gave up trying to get back. In 2003, he landed with the Astros and had to take a step back to Round Rock, which was then a Double-A team. Most of that season would be lost to injury. He would spend the next three seasons in the organization, his best season coming in 2005 with Triple-A Round Rock. Coolbaugh was an All-Star that season and hit .281 with 27 homers and 101 RBIs, a year after hitting 30 out.
"The Houston Astros are saddened to learn of the death of Mike Coolbaugh," Astros general manager Tiim Purpura said. "This was a tragic event that took a great teammate and a wonderful human being from us far too soon. Everyone who came in contact with Mike respected him and enjoyed being around him, and our thoughts and prayers are with his family during this difficult time."
He played in the Royals organization in 2006, his final one as a player, but the injured wrist held him to just 57 games with Triple-A Omaha. Overall, his big-league stats line shows a .183 average with two homers in just 82 at-bats. His Minor League numbers, however, show just what kind of player he was and also just how difficult it is for a Minor Leaguer, even a talented one, to stick in the big leagues.
When Coolbaugh played his last game in 2006, he did so with 258 career Minor League home runs and 1,007 RBIs. His name was all over the career active list. He was first in doubles (398), third in at-bats (6071) and RBIs, fourth in total bases (2835) and home runs, fifth in runs scored (931) and sixth in overall games played (1690). His career is the kind that fills the rich tapestry of Minor League Baseball, though limiting him to that would not be fair. Though his on-field exploits happened almost exclusively in the Minors, there is no doubt his impact and his legacy is felt throughout baseball at any level.
"All of baseball mourns this terrible tragedy," baseball commissioner Bud Selig said. "Mike Coolbaugh had a long professional baseball career and reached the Major Leagues in 2001 and 2002 with the Milwaukee Brewers and the St. Louis Cardinals. He also was a member of Team USA's preliminary roster before the squad earned the gold at the 2000 Olympic Games. After his playing career, Mike became a coach. Mike came from a baseball family, and he was a part of the baseball family. On behalf of all of Major League Baseball, I extend my deepest sympathy to his wife Mandy, their children and all of their family and friends."