I have a stack of new baseball books waiting to be read. At the top of the list is Heart of the Game: Life, Death and Mercy in Minor League America by S.L. Price. It is about the death of Mike Coolbaugh who was killed by a foul ball during a game several years ago. Price is one of the more elegant journalists going today; he’s a true craftsman.
S.L. Price: I first wrote this story for Sports Illustrated, but even early in that process felt it growing beyond the bounds of a magazine story. In my 15 years at S.I., I’ve probably never felt as satisfied with a piece while at the same time knowing there was so much more to tell; I had 50,000 words of notes by the time I filed. The stories of Bill Valentine, Bo McLaughlin, Jon Asahina and Warren Stephens — people in the park the night Mike was killed who had had personal experience with the damage a ball could do — made up a paragraph or two in S.I., and they alone summed up huge chunks of baseball history, major and minor. Then, as I got a sense of Tino Sanchez’s grief, and the parallels between his career and Mike’s, I knew I could explore modern ball by retracing their paths.
And lastly, throughout the reporting, I had this strange experience. It’s a dark moment, obviously, but while talking to everyone involved I kept thinking, “I know this is a tale of woe, so how come I feel so good?” Because everyone — at this extreme moment where there was no place to hide or fake it — kept doing the right thing. Tino in his anguish showed great respect to Mike and the life he lived, the Coolbaugh family repeatedly reached out to Tino to let him know they didn’t blame him, to support him, and, he says, that pulled him from a very dark place. The Colorado Rockies voted Mike’s family a playoff share — it ended up over $230,000 — in 2007, though they didn’t know him and he’d only been with the team three weeks and the history of stingy ballplayers goes back as far as the game’s origins, and then they refused to talk about it. The national media wanted to celebrate them, but the players and management wouldn’t say who came up with the idea, how the vote went, nothing. It was too important to talk about. Meanwhile, fans all over the Texas League and minor league baseball donated money night after night, $1 here, $5 there, to give to the Coolbaugh family. And no one did this because they thought the media might notice.
When a story whipsaws you like that — from brutal loss to heartfelt compassion — when you feel good and bad at the same time? Then I’m pretty sure it’s a story worth telling in a book.