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Heart of the Game

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I have to imagine that July 23, 2007, was a day that had a similar resonance for a lot of fans of the Colorado Rockies. Though I wouldn't remember the date without looking it up, I can still remember the day. I turned on my TV to see the headline on ESPN's bottom line: "AA Tulsa Drillers 1st-base coach Mike Coolbaugh killed by line drive last night". When I first saw it on the ticker, I remember thinking that it was sad and unfortunate. Then I thought, "Wait a minute! The Drillers? That's the Rockies AA team!" Though I'd never heard of Mike Coolbaugh, I couldn't help feeling a little sick. Unfortunate circumstances always hit a little harder when they involve some sort of an emotional tie to those involved. Mike Coolbaugh's name is one that will likely never be forgotten by fans of the Rockies.

The events that surrounded Mike Coolbaugh's random, unfortunate, and tragic death on July 22, 2007, are chronicled beautifully in the book Heart of the Game: Life, Death, and Mercy in Minor League America, written by S.L. Price of Sports Illustrated. There are some works of literature that can touch a nerve, or a lot of nerves, in a positive way. Heart of the Game is one of those.

The book takes the reader through the lives of both Mike Coolbaugh and the man who hit the foul ball that took Coolbaugh's life, Tino Sanchez. Coolbaugh and Sanchez have stories that are unique, yet strikingly similar. To put it simply, they are two kindred baseball souls. Both had professional baseball careers that define the term "baseball lifer". Both were career minor-leaguers, but were on opposite ends of the spectrum. Coolbaugh was a guy that always seemed to get overlooked, despite putting up tremendous numbers year after year in AAA and being pretty successful in limited stints in the big leagues. Sanchez rarely made it above AA, the guy with the bad attitude that managed to transform himself into a great teammate and a great person. It seems almost fitting, in a way, that their lives would come together in such a random, tragic moment.

Coolbaugh was the high school star, the quarterback of his Texas football team. Sanchez was the kid in Puerto Rico that loved baseball and grew up playing for his father. Coolbaugh had a clear professional career in front of him, a born athlete, and everyone loved him. Sanchez was never the most talented player, and he occasionally had issues with his work ethic and coaches. Somehow, though, both men ended up spending a significant portion of their lives toiling away on minor league fields as "organizational players", and their paths eventually crossed in 2007.

Tino Sanchez likely would have been out of baseball after a year or two in Single-A ball if it weren't for the work of former Colorado Rockies coach Dave Collins. Collins saw a kid that was talented, but lacked the work ethic necessary to survive in the cutthroat business of professional baseball. Collins took Sanchez under his wing, and, though he probably knew that Sanchez didn't have a shot to make it in the big leagues, turned Sanchez into a hard-working minor league success story. Sanchez ended up being released by the Rockies organization after a few seasons, but came back later to serve in a backup veteran role for the Tulsa Drillers in 2006, staying on for the 2007 season.

Coolbaugh was drafted, like his brother Scott, in the middle rounds of the June Amateur draft, way back in 1992. He spent portions of 15 minor league seasons with a number of organizations, though much of his career was spent with the Houston Astros organization. He got some big league time with the Milwaukee Brewers, Astros, and St. Louis Cardinals, but was never more than a September call-up, despite putting up consistently good numbers in AAA and having more than a few great years in spring training. After 2006, Coolbaugh turned his attention to being a stay-at-home dad while looking for minor league coaching jobs. On July 3, 2007, he was hired by the Colorado Rockies to fill in as the hitting coach for the Tulsa Drillers for the remainder of the season. 19 days later, tragedy struck.

On July 22, 2007, the Drillers were playing the Arkansas Travelers in North Little Rock, Arkansas, a team that Coolbaugh had spent significant time with as a player. In the 8th inning, Tino Sanchez strode to the plate with a runner on first base, where Coolbaugh was standing in the first base coaches box. Sanchez lined a foul ball down the first base line that struck Coolbaugh in the neck, causing hemmorhaging. Coolbaugh essentially died on impact. It is the only time that a member of a professional baseball team has been killed by a batted ball in the history of professional baseball. Mike Coolbaugh's father said it best in an interview for the book when he said, "I could put you in the coaches box, and you wouldn't get hit in the head to kill you, even if you stood there for 50 years." It was just a strange, random event that will likely never be understood fully by anyone.

The Rockies are an easy team to be a fan of. Though they've never enjoyed much success as a franchise, 2007 was a special year. Everyone remembers the Rockies incredible turn-around in June of that year and the incredible late September and October run that landed the Rockies in the World Series. Despite all of the franchise's struggles, a decision that was made that postseason demonstrated why many of us find it easy to be a fan of the team. In this decade, they have always placed an emphasis on character and comraderie, and that has never shown through more than it did that year. The Rockies voted to give a full playoff share to Mike Coolbaugh's widow, Mandy Coolbaugh. The World Series loser's share amounted to $233,505.18. Unfortunately, this was a move that probably didn't receive the publicity that it should have, but it is one that will never go un-appreciated by the Coolbaugh family.

Heart of the Game reads as an intertwined biography of both Mike Coolbaugh and Tino Sanchez, including interviews with family members from before and after the tragic events of July 22, 2007. The candid interviews with Mike's parents and brother, as well as his widow Mandy, are tremendous. Price manages to capture the love of baseball beautifully by portraying two individuals that lived the love of baseball all of their lives. It truly cuts straight to the heart of the game, and it will cut straight to the heart of the fans as well. It is an amazing story of perseverence and tragedy, with a little bit of everyday life mixed in. It is a story well-worth every ounce of ink that was used to write it.

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