Shock­ing death, de­layed de­crees

Other than re­quir­ing base coaches to wear bat­ting hel­mets, base­ball has ex­er­cised cau­tion, and added a few nets, in the decade af­ter the Cool­baugh tragedy

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - SPORTS - BROOKS KUBENA

Si­lence set­tled when the two base­ball ex­ec­u­tives stood where the coach died. Paul Allen, the Arkansas Trav­el­ers gen­eral man­ager, was tak­ing new Texas League pres­i­dent Tim Pur­pura on a tour of Dick­eyStephens Park on a sunny April af­ter­noon in North Lit­tle Rock.

They had sur­veyed the foul poles, the dugouts, the 30 sec­tions of 5,800 green seats.

Those ar­eas all seemed to point to­ward the grassy spot be­side first base that Pur­pura had been think­ing about since his air­plane landed. The spot where a bat­ted base­ball struck Tulsa Drillers hit­ting coach Mike Cool­baugh in the neck, in­stantly killing him on July 22, 2007.

“I saw ex­actly where it hap­pened,” said Pur­pura, who was gen­eral man­ager of the Hous­ton Astros when Cool­baugh played with Hous­ton’s Class AAA af­fil­i­ate. “And it was sad. It was some­thing I won’t for­get.”

Allen led Pur­pura back to the con­course, be­yond the ball­park mu­seum where a pic­ture of Cool­baugh hangs. They climbed up to the press box, where the ra­dio broad­cast that night was called. No other live record of the ac­ci­dent

ex­ists other than the ra­dio ar­chive for­mer Travs broad­caster Phil El­son keeps in his home.

One in­ning away from the game’s com­ple­tion, Tulsa hit­ter Tino Sanchez lined a 3-1 pitch into foul ter­ri­tory.

The ball trav­eled ap­prox­i­mately 86 feet, where it struck Cool­baugh, the first base coach, just be­low his left ear.

The im­pact sev­ered his left ver­te­bral artery and caused a se­vere brain hem­or­rhage. He was pro­nounced dead 54 min­utes later at Bap­tist Health Med­i­cal Cen­ter-North Lit­tle Rock. His wi­dow, Mandy, gave birth to their third child, Anne Michael, three months later.

The game’s score, paused at a 7-3 Travs lead, was called fi­nal.

El­son, who, among other sports, now broad­casts Uni­ver­sity of Arkansas, Fayetteville base­ball, said he re­mem­bers that base coaches al­most im­me­di­ately be­gan wear­ing hel­mets there­after. On Nov. 8, 2007, base coaches wear­ing hel­mets be­came an of­fi­cial rule in ma­jor and mi­nor league base­ball.

To this day, 10 years have passed since Cool­baugh’s death, and more ar­range­ments re­gard­ing base­ball safety have since been im­ple­mented.

Base coaches across all lev­els of base­ball are wear­ing hel­mets, play­ers have started to wear face masks in am­a­teur base­ball and soft­ball leagues, and back­stop net­ting at pro­fes­sional ball­parks is be­ing length­ened to pro­tect fans from base­balls.

Some leagues, es­pe­cially at youth lev­els, have yet to en­force such changes.

The with­stand­ing irony re­mains that none of these things would have saved Cool­baugh. The re­quired hel­met in pro­fes­sional base­ball does not cover the neck.

Arkansas DemocratGazette in­quiries to rules com­mit­tees and op­er­a­tions ex­ec­u­tives re­gard­ing why base­ball has not gone fur­ther to pro­tect coaches were di­rected to Ma­jor League Base­ball’s Chief Base­ball Of­fi­cer Joe Torre, who did not re­spond.

“That hel­met would not have saved Mike,” the Travs’ Allen said. “But it po­ten­tially could save some­one else’s life in the fu­ture.”


All base coaches must wear hel­mets at the NCAA level, where soft­ball pitch­ers have been wear­ing face masks since Ken­tucky pitcher Kelsey Nun­ley brought na­tional aware­ness to such pro­tec­tion at the 2014 Women’s Col­lege World Se­ries. The face masks have made their way down to the high school level, where soft­ball play­ers who play first and third base are even wear­ing them.

“They’re not re­quired, but it’s per­mis­sive,” said Bob Gard­ner, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of State High School As­so­ci­a­tion. “There’s a pretty good growth in that, and we’re even see­ing it among base­ball pitch­ers.”

Gard­ner said that the as­so­ci­a­tion is also start­ing to con­sider the length of pro­tec­tive net­ting at high school fa­cil­i­ties for the safety of fans, which was some­thing Mike Cool­baugh wor­ried about when he played in the mi­nors, ac­cord­ing to for­mer Drillers ra­dio broad­caster Mark Neely.

Cool­baugh al­ways asked his fam­ily to sit be­hind the net­ting, and once, Cool­baugh saw his wife Mandy talk­ing with a friend be­yond the net­ting while he was play­ing third base, and he walked over and told Mandy to move.

“He knew how dan­ger­ous foul balls were,” said Neely, who now broad­casts col­lege foot­ball and bas­ket­ball for ESPN.

Neely and Mandy Cool­baugh pe­ti­tioned ma­jor league base­ball to ex­tend the net­ting af­ter Mike Cool­baugh’s death. Vir­tu­ally no ac­tion was taken un­til eight years later.

“Quite frankly it just fell on deaf ears,” Neely said.

“I re­mem­ber be­ing in a [play­ers] union meet­ing,” said for­mer Astros player Chris Burke, who was team­mates with Cool­baugh in Class AAA Round Rock. “And they were talk­ing to us about the way that maple bats break. And they were scared about the maple bats shat­ter­ing. ‘Dude are y’all se­ri­ous?’ We hit 100 mph balls into the seats all the time. The play­ers get hurt. Fans get­ting hurt? Put the nets up.”


On De­cem­ber 2015, MLB Com­mis­sioner Rob Man­fred is­sued a rec­om­men­da­tion that ball­parks ex­tend their net­ting be­yond 140 feet of home plate. Pro­fes­sional base­ball in Ja­pan had al­ready ex­tended net­ting to reach far down the out­field lines.

A 2014 Bloomberg re­port cited that 1,750 fans in Amer­ica were in­jured by foul balls every year. Sev­eral ma­jor league and mi­nor league sta­di­ums are still not in com­pli­ance with the rec­om­men­da­tion.

Some ball­parks can’t af­ford to en­gi­neer the in­fra­struc­ture nec­es­sary to ex­tend the net­ting, which, de­pend­ing on the ball­park, may re­quire ad­di­tional poles and en­gi­neer­ing that can cost more than $100,000.

There is a wide range of net­ting lengths in the mi­nor leagues: the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings’ net­ting only reaches the start of both dugouts at Fron­tier Field, and the Class A-Ad­vanced Carolina Mud­cats’ net­ting nearly reaches both out­field foul poles.

The Arkansas Trav­el­ers spent $36,000 be­fore the 2017 sea­son to ex­tend the net­ting at Dickey-Stephens Park to the ends of both dugouts, and Allen said he does not be­lieve they will be ex­tended fur­ther.

Travs catcher Tyler Mar­lette said he and his team­mates talk about line drives entering the stands “all the time” and “how they need to ex­tend [net­ting] down the line.”

“Not a high one,” Mar­lette said. “But just a low one that gets the line drives or the ones that bounce up and catch them off guard.”

Left fielder Chuck Tay­lor said ex­tended net­ting could take away some “Top 10”

catches down the foul lines, and Allen said fur­ther nets set the risk of mak­ing the base­ball ex­pe­ri­ence “into hockey” with too much of a bar­rier.

“To con­tinue to put the nets fur­ther, ob­vi­ously, you in­crease safety,” Allen said. “But you can’t com­pletely pro­tect ev­ery­one from ev­ery­thing that can ever hap­pen. Peo­ple have to be aware of their sur­round­ings.”


Be­fore Anne Michael Cool­baugh quit tee ball, she car­ried a base­ball card of her fa­ther in her equip­ment bag.

It was one of the many small ways that the 9-yearold has tried to con­nect to a fa­ther she never knew.

Af­ter Anne was born, Mandy would set pic­tures of Mike at her in­fant’s eye level, and Anne would slap the pic­tures and say, “dad, dad.”

Her older broth­ers, Ja­cob and Joey, would tell sto­ries, of­ten­times the funny ones, so she could know.

“I al­ways wanted her to know who her fa­ther was,” Mandy said. “He’s a part of her world as much as he can be.”

Friends of Mike still check in, which is some­thing Mandy said “is one of the things God’s blessed us with.” She has lost touch

with some peo­ple, in­clud­ing Tino Sanchez, of whom she last heard had re­turned to his home­town of Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, to help with youth base­ball.

Each year, Mandy Cool­baugh helps host the Mike Cool­baugh Memo­rial Golf Tour­na­ment in San An­to­nio that raises funds to help sup­port young wid­ows and their fam­i­lies.

Some­time soon, Ja­cob, 13, and Joey, 15, want their mother to take them on a road trip to the ball­parks their fa­ther played in. The fam­ily has never been to North Lit­tle Rock, and Mandy isn’t sure if they ever will.

Every year, the Travs play a video com­mem­o­rat­ing Mike’s life on the Dick­eyStephens score­board, and the or­ga­ni­za­tion ac­cepts do­na­tions for a char­ity run by Scott Cool­baugh, Mike’s brother and the Bal­ti­more Ori­oles hit­ting coach, that do­nates used base­ball equip­ment to com­mu­ni­ties in need.

Tonight, the video will play, the play­ers will step onto the field, and a coach, with a bat­ting hel­met, will stand be­side first base.

“I hope peo­ple don’t for­get Mike, and im­prove the safety of the game and the sta­dium,” Mandy said. “None of us know when the last day is. Love the peo­ple around you.”

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette/THOMAS METTHE

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette/THOMAS METTHE

A memo­rial to Mike Cool­baugh hangs in the Arkansas Trav­el­ers mu­seum at Dickey-Stephens Park in North Lit­tle Rock. Cool­baugh died af­ter be­ing struck by a foul ball at the park in 2007.

Demo­crat-Gazette file photo

Arkansas Trav­el­ers play­ers and coaches take part in a mo­ment of si­lence at Dickey-Stephens Park in North Lit­tle Rock on July 24, 2007, two days af­ter Tulsa Drillers base coach Mike Cool­baugh died af­ter be­ing struck by a foul ball dur­ing a game at the park.

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