SCOTT SIMON, host:
One of the great clichés of baseball is that it's a game of inches. The great pitch that misses the plate by a fraction, the homer that barely goes foul, the bunt that barely rolls fair and sends home a run. The Sunday night in Little Rock Arkansas, July 2007, Tino Sanchez, a journeyman player with the AA Tulsa Drillers sharply hit a foul ball that struck his first base coach, Mike Coolbaugh, in the back of the neck.
Had the ball gone an inch one way it would've missed the coach. Less than an inch another way it would've just bruised him. But the batted ball crushed an artery against a vertebrae, which cut off blood to Mike Coolbaugh's brain and killed him right there on the field he loved.
Sports Illustrated's fabled senior writer S.L. Price has written a book about that one in a billion hit that killed one good man and ruined another. It's called "Heart of the Game: Life, Death and Mercy in Minor League America." S.L. Price joins us now from member station KUT in Austin, Texas.
Thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. S.L. PRICE (Author): Thanks for having me.
SIMON: Your book opens with two good men on the ground.
Mr. PRICE: Yeah. That's what was really striking about this book for me, is that you had two lifers. Mike Coolbaugh was 17 years in the minor leagues and considered just sort of the heart of his family, his extended family, not just his own family. And Tino Sanchez was an 11-year lifer in the minor leagues. And there's a short hand. When you're called a lifer, when you've been a minor league that long, you're known as a good guy because that's how you survive, your generous clubhouse presence, you're someone who's helping other people out, because if you're not a good guy you won't be there very long.
And one of the things that attracted me about this book was that Tino was equally as strong a character and a force in his family's life and with his teammates. And there are so many parallels between the two that I found it a really compelling story to explore.
SIMON: Well, I mean both born in river towns, family men, journeymen players as you note. And of course most of all they shared baseball.
Mr. PRICE: It's an amazing thing, really. I mean minor league baseball is a cruel, hard existence, but it's one of those things that kicks guys a lot of time and yet teaches them somehow to love the boot, love the sport, even in spite of its hardships.
And Tino and Mike found real common ground. Mike was only with the Tulsa Drillers for three weeks as a coach and that was the job that Tino Sanchez had been thrown into doing a sort of a player-coach. He was the de facto hitting coach and he was looking to retire as a player and he wanted that job.
But when he didn't get the job, he kept with the minor league code and showed Mike the ropes. And the day before the accident happened they went out to lunch, because Mike really wanted to pay him back and they started talking about their families, and Tino's wife was going to have their first child and Mike's wife was going to have their third.
SIMON: And we should explain, there's no mystery to clear up, there's no question but that this act wasn't just a one in a billion capricious shot. But you reminded in this book that baseballs can be dangerous.
Mr. PRICE: Boy, you know, it's just in the last week of April a high school kid in Missouri was beaned in the neck and died, and about 10 days later a Liberty University professor was throwing batting practice to that Virginia school's team and took a batting practice ball to the neck and died as well. That's extreme, but the baseball is a dangerous projectile.
SIMON: Tino Sanchez and his wife were expecting a child. And he was immediately pitched into depression, sleeplessness, even contemplated suicide; told his friends - what was it - Mike is dragging me with him down there.
Mr. PRICE: Yeah. He really got thrown into a dark place. I mean he took full responsibility for this, even though intellectually he knew and even though the Coolbaugh family made every effort to reach out to let him know they didn't blame him. He said to me, look, I can hear that and I really appreciate people saying that me, but the fact is literally I took a man's life. And he took that upon himself and it was tough for him then and it's still tough for him. I mean I was in contact with the family just after Christmas and I was told that Tino was still having a tough time because he thought of Mike's kids going through Christmas without her dad. And it's going to be very hard for him.
He's kept in touch with baseball. He has done some coaching. And it is his life and he does love the game deeply. But it's going to be a mixed bag from now on for him.
SIMON: Why did it touch people in baseball?
Mr. PRICE: I think it touched people in baseball because everybody in baseball, if they weren't a Mike Coolbaugh himself, they knew one, a guy who time and again put himself back together after taking a tough break. In 2005 he was -everybody knew he was - he was having such a great season in AAA and he was going to be promoted to the majors. Everybody knew it and then all of a sudden an inside pitch comes in and breaks his hand. Mike was the guy who the car breaks down on the way to the job interview. He was Mr. Hard Luck and I think even the players, superstars, and major league players all understand that they could have been Mike Coolbaugh.
And there was this great outpouring of concern and respect for him because it was sort of a but for the grace of God go I.
SIMON: Mr. Price, thanks so much.
Mr. PRICE: Thank you.
SIMON: S.L. Price, his new book is "Heart of the Game: Life, Death and Mercy in Minor League America."
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.