Saturday, August 11, 2007

Mike Coolbaugh: The Tributes

It's been longer than I wanted it to take to follow up on Mike Coolbaugh's untimely death.

Mike Coolbaugh didn't give up on his dream to play professional baseball. From an article in the Houston Chronicle:

Coolbaugh had felt the chill of chasing a big league dream in places like Medicine Hat, Canada, where summer game-time temperatures often were in the 30s.

He had been to 18 professional baseball towns in three countries, places with names that seemed to come from some kind of fiction tale, Harry Potter-esque places like Hagerstown, St. Catharines and the Doosan Bears of South Korea.

He even was among the finalists who just missed making the roster for the 2000 Summer Olympic Games, at which USA Baseball won the gold medal. Along the way, he kept loving the game. Nothing could end the dream.

"He was going to do it for a living," said Astros second baseman Chris Burke, who became friends with Coolbaugh at then-Class AA Round Rock. "If there was a place to play, he was going to play. He was going to play until you took the uniform off his back."

From the same Chronicle article:

"The game humbles you and teaches you a lot of lessons," Purpura said. "He lived that."

So let's make it clear: Baseball and the Astros have lost one of their true greats.

Coolbaugh wasn't a great player, but he was the kind of professional who appreciated the game more, worked more, dreamed more.

If it's true the greatest stories are not about the destination but the journey, few would parallel or inspire more than Coolbaugh.

The article concludes:

"He was the first guy that I met that had the attitude of, 'Listen, I'm going to play ball no matter what,' " Burke said. "No matter where, he was going to play professional baseball.

"He had some bad-break stories, but he loved the life. He was committed to playing the game. Baseball is what he did."

His was among the greatest success stories in the game. The story of never giving up.
Coolbaugh was honored with a pregame moment of silence, accompanying video board images and a tribute read by public address announcer Kevin Cruise. It was originally planned that the teams would line up before the game as a mixed group, but Tulsa Manager Stu Cole changed his mind because he felt the moment might be too emotional.

“I think it’s brought us closer together,” Cole said of the national support the Drillers have seen. “Because with everything that’s going on we know we have the support from everybody in baseball. Baseball is a fraternity and you really find that out when things like this happen. It’s a benefit to us to know that so many people care.”

Drillers players wore Coolbaugh’s initials and his jersey No. 29 on their caps, Coolbaugh’s jersey hung in the Drillers dugout and Tulsa left the first base coaches area open in the first inning as a tribute. Pitcher Jon Asahina, who was hit in the head by a line drive at Dickey-Stephens Park in April, took over first in the second inning.


Travelers utility man Ryan Leahy appeared at one of the donation tables [ed. - for fans to contribute to the Mike Coolbaugh Memorial Fund] in full uniform, the Tulsa ribbon pinned to his cap, to trade autographs for donations. Leahy said a few hit batsmen and some bad blood between the Drillers and Travs early in the season did nothing to diminish Arkansas’ support for the guys in the visitors dugout.

“It’s hard to put into words, but anything these guys need we’re willing to help them out right now,” Leahy said.

As Mike Coolbaugh's pregnant widow sobbed uncontrollably and his two young sons gently laid red roses into their father's casket, his friends attempted to put the ballplayer's tragic and untimely death into perspective Monday.

"In my eyes and the eyes of others, it's all still very surreal," said Brooks Kieschnick, a former baseball teammate of Coolbaugh's in the minor leagues. "You have a better chance of getting struck by lightning than what happened to Mike."

Fighting back tears, Kieschnick paused to collect himself [ed. - I was told that other former teammates who attended the funeral were in no position to speak to press, so great was their grief].

"He's going to be deeply, deeply missed," he said.

Father John Wagener offered Coolie's family and friends these thoughts (from the same Express-News article):

"But I do have one answer I'd like to propose [ed. - in trying to explain the "possible meaning" behind Mike's death]," Wagener said. "Mike played by the rules in every way. He's not in the Hall of Fame; he didn't have the most RBIs. Maybe God is saying, 'See? See what one of you can do in life?'

"Saints don't think about themselves, they think about God. Mike was one of those (saints)," he said.

Again, everything I hear people saying about Mike is about the great guy he was:

He [ed. - Marty Shaughnessy, former high school football coach of Mike's] recalled Coolbaugh as an honor student, a fine athlete and an even better person.

"He was one of those pleasure-to-see-every-day kids," Shaughnessy said. "This was such a freak thing, a terrible, terrible tragedy. It's hard to put into words."


But as successful as Coolbaugh was as an athlete, it was his strength of character that made him special, a pallbearer and former teammate said.

"He was a great friend," said Mike Frank, who roomed with Coolbaugh at Columbus, Ohio, and Memphis, Tenn., in the minor leagues. "He was always thinking of other people. I loved him like a brother."

Coolie graduated from Roosevelt High School in the city of Windcrest. Windcrest has a water tower they decorate as a candle - I remember it from when we would drive the residential streets of Windcrest during the Christmas holidays to see all the light displays when my dad was stationed in San Antonio. The "candle" was lit in Mike's honor from sunset the day of the funeral until dawn the following morning. The "candle" can be seen from the I-35/Loop 410 interchange.

At Tulsa's first home game since Coolie's death, his Number 29 jersey was retired and placed on display in the stadium. "During the game, fans participated in raffles and auctions of autographed items that helped to raise over $10,000 for the Mike Coolbaugh Memorial Fund that will benefit his family."

The game was played entirely without first base coaches. The Drillers had decided to play the game without a coach to pay tribute to Coolbaugh. The Wranglers also elected to honor him by playing the entire nine innings without a first base coach.

Tulsa also displayed a special number 29 patch on its uniforms for the first time. The patch is located below the left shoulder of the jerseys and will be in place on both the home and road uniforms for the remainder of the season.

The Wichita pitcher, Dusty Hughes, from that first game back in Tulsa, had been Coolbaugh's roommate last year for three weeks when they were both rehabbing in extended spring training.

"During that time, Hughes and his wife often talked to Coolbaugh's wife, Mandy, on the phone, asking her questions about pregnancy. The Hughes were expecting their first child. The Coolbaughs have two children (another is expected in October.)

"That was a big help and now our daughter, Kaylen, is 8 -1/2 months old," Hughes said.

Hughes wrote Coolbaugh's uniform number, 29, which was retired by the Drillers before the game, on his cap and also on the mound."
"My dad and I were at a Redbirds game and I was trying to get autographs from the players," Joe said in a phone interview on Tuesday. "I hollered 'Hey, No. 29, can I have your autograph?' He turned looked at me and said, 'My name is Mike.' "

An instant friendship started.

The Benafields sat close to the Redbirds dugout and Joe would cheer loudest for Mike.

"One night Mike looked up and asked if we could stay after the game for a few minutes," Dale said.

Coolbaugh presented his young fan with his personal bat that he had cracked that evening.

"You should have seen Joe afterward," Dale said. "He skipped all the way to the truck."

Joe said his objective in giving up the bat is to let Coolbaugh's young sons know just what type of father they had.

"Maybe this is a way his sons will remember him," Joe said. "They're pretty young and I thought this was a good way for them to know their dad."

That's a very thoughtful and generous 13-year-old.

On Friday, August 3, the Express were playing the Rockies' Triple-A affliliate, the Colorado Springs Sky Sox, in Round Rock. With the rain-out at the last game on the previous home stand, just the day after Coolie's death, this game was selected to hold the tribute. Round Rock's uniforms now have a small black patch on the front right with the letters "MC" and the number "32", Coolbaugh's number when he was with Round Rock in 2005. Before the game started, there was a memorial pitch which ended out in left field with Barry Wesson, who walked the ball to third base. Brooks Conrad joined Wesson at third to remove the special base, marked with "32" on each side. The ball and the base are to be presented to Coolbaugh's family. A member of the grounds crew replaced third base so the game could begin. Fans were reminded that all home run dollars will go to the Mike Coolbaugh Memorial Fund for the remainder of the season. During the 7th inning stretch, a moment of silence was observed, and the Booster Club began passing the helmet for fans who wished to make a donation to Mike's family. After the game, the announcer, "Grubby", played the video he had prepared with clips from Mike's time with the Express, to include footage of his wife, Mandy, and his little boys. It was set to the song One More Day by Diamond Rio.

One more day, one more time
One more sunset maybe I'll be satisfied
But then again I know what it would do
Leave me wishing still for one more day with you

I'm sure there was hardly a dry eye in the entire ballpark. I know my sisters were a mess, and I wasn't much better.

The next day, I overheard one of the season ticket holders telling someone that Mandy and her sister had been at that game, up in the suite level with Jay Miller, the GM.

At Monday's game, the Express announced that over $14,000 had been donated at the ballpark for Mandy and the children. Since then, there were two more home games and more home runs. The Express are on the road until August 18th. There are twelve more home games for the rest of the regular season. Nothing will make the pain of losing a husband and father go away, but the donations fans here and elsewhere have made to the Coolbaugh family will at least ease one burden

Other resources:

Mike Coolbaugh's obituary at
Drillers to retire No. 29 at Tulsa World (7/31)
Don's Extra Point: In Memory of Mike Coolbaugh (7/25)
Lessening the family's burden at Tulsa World (8/1)
Fans pay tribute at Tulsa World (8/1)
Related post 8/26/07:
Round Rock Express' Tribute to Mike Coolbaugh
Related post 10/4/07:
Why the Rockies should win the World Series

1 comment:

Falling LEAVes said...

Thank you for putting up this amazing post about an amazing guy. It's good to know what a great organization the Rockies are for taking care of Coolbaugh's family they way they have. I especially liked the story about the young fan and the baseball bat. They sure don't make baseball players like they used to. The same goes for the fans!