Mourning coaches and players wonder about safety

They've all been hit, anybody who coaches the bases, and Mike Coolbaugh's death after being struck in the head by a line drive as he stood in the first-base box was a sobering reminder of what a dangerous job it is.

Across baseball Monday, players and coaches mourned the death of the 35-year-old who left behind two young sons and a pregnant wife. They wondered about their own safety and that of fans a day after tragedy struck at a minor league game in Arkansas.

Coolbaugh, a former major leaguer who played 44 games for the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers over two seasons, died after being struck by a foul ball off the bat of Tino Sanchez of the Tulsa Drillers.

``It's just devastating,'' said Astros coach Sean Berry, who coached Coolbaugh in the minors. ``He has two kids and one on the way. It's a sad day in baseball.''

``He was a great guy. I just feel bad for his family. Just a sad story,'' said Detroit outfielder Marcus Thames, Coolbaugh's spring training roommate one year while with the New York Yankees.

Coolbaugh's death was the talk of clubhouses, and some players suggested moving the coaching boxes back. Giants third base coach Tim Flannery said he will start wearing a plastic shield inside his cap more regularly starting Monday night, in part because his mother e-mailed him telling him to wear a helmet.

``It's something I think about all the time,'' he said. ``I run and exercise all the time. This year, a ball almost hit me in the eyes. That's why I always have my feet moving.''

San Diego Padres third-base coach Glenn Hoffman wears a plastic protector under his cap ever since after getting knocked unconscious by a line drive.

``I got hit in Kansas City in batting practice, and from that day on I wear a helmet,'' he said. ``It's a protective shield in the hat. Before that, I had a helmet out there after I got hit. It doesn't cover the ears or anything, but at least you have some protection for the top of the head.''

Coaches can't count on great reflexes to get out of the way.

``All you can do is be alert. It is scary,'' said Colorado Rockies first base coach Glenallen Hill. ``Helmets, ankle bands can help. But there is so much to protect. I put on a shin guard or an elbow guard if a player hands me one after reaching base.''

Base coaches have plenty to do besides keeping an eye on the ball. They must constantly scan the field to see the position of the outfielders and infielders, decipher pickoff moves, instruct the runners whether to go halfway or tag up on a fly, freeze on a line drive and run on passed balls.

Although their contributions aren't always apparent, base coaches influence the outcome of many plays. And all the while, there's the danger of a ball coming off the bat at more than 100 mph.

``The third base coach with a runner on second is the one in the most danger,'' said Angels first base coach Alfredo Griffin.

``It is something you have to pay attention to, and now you have to pay even more attention to it,'' White Sox third base coach Razor Shines said.

Rangers third base coach Don Wakamatsu turns sideways and moves his feet as the ball's crossing home plate like an infielder so he can react. But when a ball is screaming right at you, all you can do ``is hope and pray you make the right decision to go one way or another,'' he said.

Padres first base coach Bobby Meacham admitted there's times he's not watching the batter.

``Sometimes my back's to home plate or I'm watching the first baseman and sometimes I don't watch the hitter. But I know I can tell when the ball's coming in my direction by the sound of the bat or the movement of the guy's I'm watching,'' he said.

Said Astros first base coach Jose Cruz: ``You've got to be lucky as well as alert. This should be a real wakeup call for all coaches on the line.''

Reds third base coach Mark Berry recalled that players once wore plastic liners inside their caps before batting helmets became required and thinks protective cap liners should be used regularly by base coaches.

``If somebody gave me one now, I'd use it,'' he said. ``It's something you could wear under your hat. It could save your life.''

He and Reds first base coach Billy Hatcher are more worried about getting hit by the barrel of a broken bat. Hatcher won't wear a protective cap liner, figuring it wouldn't provide much protection.

``If you put it under your hat, you could still get hit in the face,'' Hatcher said. ``It's just one of those things. You're taking a chance every time you're a first base or third base coach.''

Tigers third base coach Gene Lamont doesn't think helmets are the answer, either: ``If you're going to do that, you're going to need to offer helmets to all the fans that come in,'' he said.

Why not just a catcher's mask and gear, suggested Tigers center fielder Curtis Granderson.

``Then, once you start changing that, you start putting helmets on the position players that are on the field along with the pitcher,'' he said.

Detroit first base coach Andy Van Slyke said: ``If we're concerned about the safety of the coaches, I would say we should be more concerned about the safety of the fans and have everyone in the first 20 rows wear helmets because they're in more danger than any coach on the field.

``I thought it was just a matter of time before someone was killed in the stands, to be honest with you, either by a flying bat or a ball.''

Coolbaugh joined the Drillers, the Rockies' Double-A affiliate in the Texas League, on July 3, and Rockies manager Clint Hurdle chatted with him the next day, talking about balancing the demands of baseball and family.

``He was a good man,'' an emotional Hurdle said. ``We had some common fabric. He had a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old, Jacob and Joseph, his wife's six months pregnant, Mandy is. So, we talked about kids. We talked about the relationship, the demands of a father, of a coach. And he was so excited.

``He was a good man. He loved the game and his family.''

``It just crushed me when I heard it,'' Astros infielder Mike Lamb said. ``We had him in training camp a couple of years. I just think about his family and his kids. That's the worst part for me. Now that I have kids, you think about that, how his kids will grow up without their father. I have two kids and that's my worst fear.

``It's dangerous out there,'' Lamb said.

And not just for players and coaches.

``To me, the danger is mostly to the fans, people not paying attention and a foul ball comes screaming down the line, the way they build stadiums nowadays with the seats so close to the field,'' Lamb said.

``I actually am surprised this hasn't happened more often,'' Astros pitcher Roy Oswalt said, ``especially with bats and balls flying into the stands. I would have thought it would be more likely to hit the fans.''

Dodgers manager Grady Little concurred: ``It's a shame what happened. But you know it can happen when you've got a baseball flying around like that. You always realize the danger. You never overlook that and you always respect it. I have a great fear of these bats flying around. They split apart and fly around and that's what scares me.''

When Twins manager Ron Gardenhire coached third base, he sometimes asked parents to switch seats with their children so the parent was between the child and home plate for extra protection.

``The worst thing sitting in the dugout for us is watching foul balls go into the stands, little kids getting hit,'' Gardenhire said. ``It scares you to death. We all cringe. Everybody always closes their eyes when it goes up there hard.''

As did many teams, including the Rockies, the Blue Jays held a moment of silence before Monday's game in honor of Coolbaugh, whom the Jays drafted in 1990.

``All of baseball mourns this terrible tragedy,'' commissioner Bud Selig said.

It's one that may cause coaches and teams to re-examine safety issues.

Reds interim manager Pete Mackanin was reading a story about Coolbaugh on his office computer when reporters walked into his office Monday.

``I've always wondered why that hasn't happened sooner,'' he said.

So has Braves slugger Chipper Jones.

``Third base coaches, especially with guys on second base, they're watching middle infielders and what not, they're not always focused in on what's going on at the plate. I've seen many a third base coach come within an eyelash of seriously getting hurt,'' Jones said. ``You've got big huge strong guys hitting, guys throwing 95-100 mph and guys put good wood on the ball down the lines and somebody's going to get hurt.''

Echoing the sentiments of Giants reliever Steve Kline, who played with Coolbaugh in St. Louis, Jones suggested moving coaching boxes back so that they're no closer than the bases.

``Certainly baseball needs to take a look at it,'' Jones said. ``The coaching boxes are not going to affect the game in any way and it might help keep people who are really defenseless, without a glove, without a helmet, with any kind of protection, it's going to keep them safe.''

Still, there's only so much that can be done.

``Any one is in danger when they step on the field,'' Rockies first baseman Todd Helton said. ``You are in danger when you step into the box or step over to first base. It's part of the job.''

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AP Sports Writers Ronald Blum, Rick Gano, Steve Brisendine, Joe Kay, Stephen Hawkins, Janie McCauley, Tom Withers and Janie McCauley, and AP freelance writers Dale Bublitz, Jim Carley, Joe Esse, Mike Kelly and Patrick Rose contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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