I never met Mike Coolbaugh. To be honest, I never even saw him play. In many ways, I feel wholly unqualified to write a single word about him.
And yet, here I am, staring at a blank screen, wanting to find words to write about this tragedy. No, about this man. About his life, not his death.
It's the Mike Coolbaughs of the world that make Minor League Baseball work. Sure, the hot youngsters who jet through a team's system on the way to stardom get most of the attention. I'm guilty of it myself, pouring countless hours into top prospects rankings and the like. But without Mike Coolbaugh and others like him, baseball would collapse on itself like a body without a skeleton.
Anyone who's ever played the game of baseball at one time or another likely had a dream of playing in the big leagues. Most of us give that up pretty quickly. Then there are the precious few who have the talent to at least give it a shot in pro ball. Every year around the draft, you hear these new Minor Leaguers talk about pursuing that dream. But how many, truthfully, could look themselves in the mirror and say they'd spend 17 years chasing it.
That's what Mike Coolbaugh did. He spent year after year, with organization after organization, trying to reach that promised land. And he got there, albeit briefly, just 11 short years after being drafted. His cup of coffee tasted better than most, I'm sure.
It could've been bitter, with Coolbaugh feeling he deserved a greater opportunity than what was given him based on his performance over the years. But that's clearly not who he was. He only contemplated quitting once, it seems, back in 2005 with the Astros, but kept going. Last year, at age 34, he worked his way back from a broken wrist to play one more year. He even headed to Mexico this spring to give playing one last try, largely because his young children loved seeing him out on the field.
And he clearly loved being on it. There's no other reasonable explanation why a guy would play in eight different leagues, not including the Majors, for 10 organizations, playing in countless Minor League towns and logging God knows how many hours on buses. It's why, after not finding a club to play with in 2007, he embarked on his second baseball career with Tulsa just a few weeks ago.
He had begun teaching years ago. As reaction from around baseball poured in about the tragedy, it was remarkably moving how many lives he had touched, how many young players he had shepherded through the tough times of Minor League life, past him and up to the big leagues, to the dream he was still chasing. And he did it without a drop of malice or remorse. Quite simply, Mike Coolbaugh was meant to be on a baseball field.
Justin Huber, who played with Coolbaugh last year in Omaha said that simply knowing Mike for part of one season will make him mentally stronger. Huber's been at this for seven years now. Thinking about how Coolbaugh did it for 10 years longer on top of that will stop him from ever complaining about a day game after a night game, about 3 a.m. wakeup calls for flights, about less-than-optimal visiting clubhouses.
I never got to meet Mike Coolbaugh, so what gives me the right to try to make some sense out of this tragedy? Somehow I feel a connection. Maybe it's the fact I'm just a year older and have two children of my own. We all have our own reasons why we relate to things, and being reminded of the fleetingness of life certainly makes me feel more strongly about what I do have.
Not having met Coolbaugh does not mean we can't learn something from him. Like Huber, perhaps we should all realize we shouldn't complain about little annoyances in life. It's easy to lose appreciation of getting to do something you love day in and day out. Amazingly, it seems that Coolbaugh never did.
Is there any real way to make sense of a tragedy of this nature? Probably not and frankly, I feel a little uncomfortable trying to play that role at all. But in the days since this happened, in reading and hearing about the impact Mike Coolbaugh had in and out of baseball, there are a couple of things I think we should all do to honor him.
First, go spend some more time with your family. It doesn't matter what you're doing. Put it aside and be with the people who matter most. I know I hugged my children a little tighter after first reading what happened in Arkansas on Sunday.
Second, head to a baseball field somewhere. It doesn't matter if you're playing or watching. Just go and have fun doing it.
I never met Mike Coolbaugh, but I'm fairly certain he would have wanted it that way.