It was two years ago today that tragedy struck the Minor Leagues on a previously unimagined scale, as 35-year-old Tulsa Drillers coach Mike Coolbaugh was killed by a line-drive foul ball while coaching first base.
Coolbaugh was just a month into his coaching career with the Rockies organization when this unspeakable incident occurred. He had previously played 17 professional seasons (nearly all of them in the Minor Leagues), an achievement that in and of itself spoke volumes about his love for baseball.
The sport suffered a tremendous loss on that fateful July day, but a far greater loss was felt by the family he left behind. Coolbaugh had been married to his wife, Mandy, for seven years. The couple had two young children, Jake and Joey, and a third was on the way (Anne was born on November 2, 2007).
In the two years that have passed since Mike Coolbaugh's death, a wide variety of organizations and individuals have gone out of their way to insure that his memory lives on. Leading the charge has been Mandy Coolbaugh, who has dedicated herself to making sure that real and lasting positives emerge out of what had been an unfathomably negative occurrence.
"The way Mike was hit, and the place he was hit, so many things had to fall in line for that to happen," said Mandy Coolbaugh. "My feeling is that God was behind it, and that good can come out of it. If I closed up and hid [as a result of the tragedy], then I would not be doing justice to Mike."
She remains in awe of the number of people who have reached out to her over the past two years, in order to share their memories of her husband.
"So many people have told me stories that I otherwise wouldn't have known," she said. "[Mike] left impressions on people, and that makes me love him that much more ... One lady with a handicapped child wrote to me that 'Your husband hugged my son, he wasn't afraid to talk to him, and to touch him.'
Now, that's not the type of thing he would have came home and told me, because to him that wouldn't have been any great feat. But stories like that show he knew how to live life the right way, through small acts."
Mike Coolbaugh has recently been memorialized in more formal ways as well. Minor League Baseball created an award in his name that is presented annually "to an individual who has shown an outstanding baseball work ethic, knowledge of the game and skill in mentoring young players on the field." He was also recently honored by the Round Rock Express, for whom he played for in both 2003 and 2005, when they retired his No. 32 in a pregame ceremony this past April.
"It's comforting to me, to be able to walk into that stadium and point out Mike's number on the wall," said Mandy Coolbaugh. "In situations like that he's with us as much as he can be."
The following month saw the release of S.L. Price's "The Heart of the Game: Life, Death, and Mercy in Minor League America." The book provides a detailed account of the careers of both Mike Coolbaugh and Tino Sanchez, a fellow Minor League lifer who hit the fatal foul ball.
"I was scared how people would react [to the book], but I've been surprised in a good way," said Mandy Coolbaugh. "Everyone can relate to it in some way, even though it's the story of being a Minor Leaguer. Because we're all Minor Leaguers in life, in that we're trying to reach that goal of being a success."
And in regards to Sanchez, Mandy Coolbaugh very much wants it to be known that her thoughts are with him.
"I still pray for Tino. I worry that people have forgotten about him and what he went through, and I don't want them to," she said. "He has had just as tough a time, having to be connected to something like this. I hope that people don't look at his name in a bad light, and I hope that he can find peace."
Number retirement ceremonies and book releases are certainly meaningful, but they are one-time only events. But one thing that friends and family are able to look forward to on a year-to-year basis is the Coolbaugh Memorial Golf Tournament. This year's tourney, the third overall, is scheduled for Nov. 7 at Tapatio Springs Golf Resort in Boerne, Tex.
Cheryl Coolbaugh (Mike's cousin) helps to organize the event, and would like to get the word out that both silent and live items are needed for the charity auction. And, of course, everyone in the baseball community (including fans) is encouraged to come out and participate. More information can be found at coolbaughmemorial.com.
While the Coolbaugh Memorial Golf Tournament was initially conceived as a way to raise money for the family Mike Coolbaugh left behind, Mandy Coolbaugh plans for it to benefit a wide variety of causes as the years go on.
"So many people have reached out to me, so now I would like to reach out to other people," she explained. "I would like to raise money to host a bereavement clinic for kids ... It's easy to look at kids and think 'Oh, they'll bounce back,' but no one's around at 10 o'clock when they're asking what does heaven look like. Kids go through that sort of thing, and we might not always be there to help them ride that rollercoaster."
It is through events such as the annual golf tournament that Mike Coolbaugh's memory will live on. The generosity of spirit evident in such undertakings shows that even the worst tragedies can have a multitude of beneficial aspects.
"I feel like we were put in a special situation, and that there was a reason this happened," said Mandy Coolbaugh. "Good things will continue to come out of it."