The last word: A death in the top of the ninth

The dream of getting to the big leagues brought Mike Coolbaugh and Tino Sanchez together, says author S.L. Price. Their blossoming friendship turned into tragedy with a single swing of the bat.

The dream of getting to the big leagues brought Mike Coolbaugh and Tino Sanchez together, says author S.L. Price. Their blossoming friendship turned into tragedy with a single swing of the bat.

The original crowd of 4,538 fans had thinned mightily, as it does late on a Sunday night in a 7–3 game. Maybe 1,700 diehards were scattered about the minor-league stadium in North Little Rock, Ark., as designated hitter Tino Sanchez, batting from the left side, stepped to the plate with one on and none out in the top half of the final inning.

Tulsa Drillers pitching coach Bo McLaughlin was standing at the edge of the visitors dugout along the third base line, near catching instructor Marv Foley. Twice on that July 2007 night, Foley had dodged foul balls that had bounded into the Tulsa dugout and, well, you notice when a guy starts to attract balls like that. “You’d better take that target off your back,” McLaughlin said, chuckling.

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Sanchez, a 28-year-old journeyman, was having a good night at the plate. In the seventh, during a superb at-bat in which he fouled off three pitches before popping out to center, the switch-hitting veteran had looked down the first-base line to his new friend in the coach’s box, 35-year-old Mike Coolbaugh. Sanchez widened his eyes with a silent question to Coolbaugh—Does this look okay?—then took a practice swing. Coolbaugh put out both his hands and nodded slowly: You’re fine. Right where you need to be. Coolbaugh had joined the team less than three weeks earlier, but he and Sanchez had discovered they had much in common. Just a day earlier, the two “lifers” had shared their first lunch together—Coolbaugh’s treat. Coolbaugh had just ended a long playing career in which he had traded 17 years of his life to appear in only 44 major-league games. Sanchez had logged 11 years in the minors himself. Both men had wives at home who were expecting babies.

Bill Edwards, a 26-year-old reliever for the hometown Arkansas Travelers, threw three consecutive balls to Sanchez; one more and everything would have been different. But his fourth pitch was a sinker that the home-plate umpire called a strike. The pitch, Drillers play-by-play man Mark Neely later said, was “a very borderline strike on the outside corner. I’m not blaming this on the umpire. But with all the strange things that had occurred to get to that moment …”

Sanchez wasn’t looking for the call anyway. “I wanted to hit,” he says. “I wanted the umpire to call it a strike. I felt good.”

It was 8:53 p.m. Coolbaugh, standing a foot or two beyond the far edge of the coach’s box, leaned toward Matt Miller, the Drillers runner standing on first. “We’re down a couple runs, so don’t get picked off,” Coolbaugh said. “Freeze on a line drive. If you’re going first to third, you’ve got to be sure.” Miller took his lead. Edwards brought back his arm.

It was only Coolbaugh’s 18th game as a first-base coach. With a runner at first, an experienced coach will watch the hitter first, then the runner, eyes darting back and forth but always weighted toward home plate. From the Drillers dugout, pitcher Jon Asahina glanced over at Mike. “I could tell: He was just watching Matt Miller’s secondary lead,” Asahina says. “That’s why I think he looked late, because he was focused on the guy on first base.” He pauses, then adds, “You can’t blame anyone.”

The Travelers had a good scouting report on Sanchez, perfect for digging out of a 3–1 hole: Bites—but can’t handle—the inside fastball/sinker; he goes for it, but too soon and almost always hooks it foul. Edwards delivered another sinker, inside and hard. “I was trying to go middle-in and down and it got a little farther in,” Edwards says. “He dropped his barrel.” In other words, Sanchez saw the ball coming, and bit as usual, thinking about more than just making contact as he flashed the barrel of the bat through the hitting zone. A home run gets us back in it. But Sanchez went a fraction of a second too soon, precisely as the Travelers hoped.

The ball blasted off the bat. “A rocket!” Neely shouted into his microphone.

Normally, Sanchez never bothers tracking a ball he knows is foul. But this time he watched the ball fly up the line, hooking just right of first base. Coolbaugh heard the crack, and out of the corner of his eye saw something white, coming fast. He threw up his hands, and tilted his body slightly back. “It’s so crazy,” Sanchez says. “It seemed like the ball followed him.”

The first noise, the crack of leather hitting wood, was both familiar and strange. A split second later came another sound. “It wasn’t like anything you’ve ever heard,” says Warren Stephens, a Little Rock financier who donated the land for the Travelers’ stadium and was sitting in his suite with a visitor from New York. Stephens shot a glance over at first base. “What was that?”

The skull has evolved to protect the brain, and in that sense the loud impact of a ball can be reassuring; at least something is shielding the vital softness. But in this case, the ball zeroed in on Coolbaugh’s most vulnerable spot, the exposed flesh of his neck about a half inch below and behind his left ear. Its report was muffled, moist, like an ax sinking hard into a patch of rotten timber. Team owner Bill Valentine was sitting in the broadcast booth with Neely. “Hit him in the head!” he said on the air, hardly alone in being mistaken. “Hit him in the head! Ohhh, that hurt.”

Coolbaugh’s hands didn’t reach his head. He fell back stiffly, as if frozen, and when he landed on his back the hands rose and fell and flopped limply near his ears. “The instinct is to grab where you’ve been hit,” says John Parke, a season-ticket holder who had stayed for the ninth. “He never made it that far.”

McLaughlin, the pitching coach, instantly knew Coolbaugh’s trouble went beyond normal; whenever he’d seen anyone hit before, whenever there’d been pain, the man kicked, rolled, squirmed, something. He turned to Marv Foley. “This is not good,” he said.

Tino Sanchez, his body just completing the corkscrew forced by a batter’s swing, threw the bat from his right hand to his left, mouth open. He bolted out of the batter’s box and up the first base line, so fast that he somehow got to Coolbaugh’s side before Miller or the Travelers first baseman, so fast that the fall’s force, the weight of a body succumbing to gravity, had just finished rolling Coolbaugh over to his right side. The first-base umpire, Tyler Funneman, had been standing six feet behind the base. Coolbaugh had been just eight feet to his left. But Sanchez still somehow closed the gap, some 90-odd feet from home plate to Coolbaugh, faster than him, too. “He had his hands on his head and he was just screaming,” Funneman says. “The look in his eyes was just devastation.”

Sanchez covered the final three steps in a sprint and stood over Coolbaugh. The coach’s eyes were pinballing about, rolling back into his head. His mouth spewed a whitish foam; his body convulsed. Fifteen feet away, the baseball lay near the first base line, a splash of white in the grass.

Sanchez stood, spun, signaled to the Drillers dugout, dropped to his knees. Drillers trainer Austin O’Shea, and his Arkansas counterpart rushed onto the field. O’Shea positioned himself in the grass beyond Coolbaugh’s head. He thumbed open Coolbaugh’s eyelids to check his consciousness. “Mike, can you hear me?” O’Shea said. O’Shea pushed open the eyelids farther, able now to see the iris and pupils. “There was just nothing there,” he says.

Two doctors had clambered out of the stands from the first base side, including Travelers team physician James Bryan. Bryan pressed his knuckles into Coolbaugh’s sternum, looking for any kind of voluntary—thus, conscious—response. His pulse was still strong, but within about 20 seconds, O’Shea says, Coolbaugh started a half-cough, half-snore—“agonal respiration”—a signal that he’d stopped breathing on his own.

Within two minutes of the hit, an off-duty Pulaski County sheriff’s deputy working stadium security had called Little Rock’s emergency medical service, which then dispatched an ambulance from its site just a block away, and O’Shea had cut off Coolbaugh’s jersey; defibrillator paddles had been attached in case the heart stopped. But there was no time to wait. Coolbaugh was given mouth-to-mouth, then a bag-valve mask was placed on his mouth. His chest began to rise and fall. The doctors took charge and O’Shea stepped back, thinking, We’re getting oxygen to his blood, his heart’s beating. We get the ambulance here, get him to the hospital. Everything will be all right.

Matt Miller put an arm around Sanchez’s shoulder, but it didn’t help. Sanchez was praying, harder than he ever had in his life, Please God, for Mike to come to. He begged, Please don’t do this to me, felt guilty about that, then begged some more.

Four minutes after the ball was hit, sirens could be heard outside the park. But it was another five before the ambulance finally appeared on the field.

Coolbaugh was lifted onto a gurney, then into the ambulance. Mystified, helpless, the sparse crowd stood and applauded. Asahina, who himself had been hit recently by a hard-hit ball, felt a rage rising; he wanted to scream, he wanted them all to shut up, go away, fill the air with something other than the same noise that greets every useless base hit. Oh, this is all just part of the show for you? he thought. Then he let it go.

Sanchez sat in the dugout now, on the bench, his teammates awkward, trying to say the right words. Asahina walked over and rubbed Sanchez’s back to try and let him know … something. But Sanchez had been made different, separated from the rest of the players by dread, the night’s urgent quiet. “Why me?” he asked himself for the first time. “Why him?”

The ambulance rolled out of the right field gate at 9:10 p.m. Later, doctors would determine that Coolbaugh had died the very moment he was hit. In what the county coroner called a “one-in-a-bazillion chance,” the ball had crushed Coolbaugh’s left vertebral artery against the left first cervical vertebra, at the base of his skull. The artery burst, cutting off blood supply to the brain instantly. The heart and lungs shut down more slowly.

The umpires and managers didn’t know this when they met after the ambulance departed and agreed to suspend the game, thinking it would be resumed when the Drillers returned to town the following Thursday. Within a day it was decided that it would end where it ended: with the Travelers taking the win, with all the statistics applying but one. Because Sanchez’s at-bat never ended, was not complete, it became a statistical non-event. Across his professional career, he made 2,267 official plate appearances, but the one that matters most is a phantom.

From the book Heart of the Game by S.L. Price. ©2009 by Scott L. Price. Reprinted by arrangement with Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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