Death is something we do not usually associate with the playing of baseball. It usually comes up when we consider the passing of greats, like Lou Gehrig, from illness or time, or off-the-field misadventure. But when a small, hard ball, whistles through the air at speeds over a hundred miles an hour the human body is at risk. Heart of the Game looks at a terrible event, the death in 2007 of minor league coach Mike Coolbaugh from a sizzling foul ball to the neck, how he got to be there on that dark day, and how it came to be that Tino Sanchez, a journeyman minor league utility player, came to be the instrument of Coolbaugh’s untimely passing.
Price uses the biographies of these two men to paint a portrait of what it means, in cold, hard detail, to be professional participants in the great American past-time. The focus is on the minor leagues, for neither Coolbaugh nor Sanchez was blessed with significant major league experience. Coolbaugh brought an athletic passion to playing that had been reinforced by a very focused and very demanding father. Sanchez took longer to reach his cruising altitude, beginning as a kid with a chip on his shoulder, but developing, under the tutelage of a gifted, sensitive coach to a mature player-coach.
This is a book about how frustrating it can be to forever watch the shimmer of The Show ahead in the distance, always to see those less talented, less dedicated, less unlucky cruise past. True to its title, the book looks at what constitutes actual heart, respect for the game, and pokes its nose here and there into the appeal of minor league ball to our public perception.
After having offered bios of Coolbaugh and Sanchez, Price veers off into another tale of pitching prospect Jon Asahina, who was creamed in the head by a line drive. It struck me (no, not intended) at first that this was a diversion, that Price had exhausted his core material and was casting about for supporting filler. But it turns out that there were many individuals involved in the game on the day that Coolbaugh died who had been touched by such events, whether as the victim of a speeding ball, or a close personal witness to a prior on-field horror. More such connections follow.
Once the broad background has been prepared, the back third of the book returns us to the death of Colbaugh, the specifics of that day, and the impact of his death on both participants and relations. Keep a box of tissues handy.
Price’s is not the first, nor will it be the last book to offer a close look at minor league sports in America. It is not the first, nor will it be the last to peer past the romantic image many of us have of the sport to some of the seamier aspects. His look at how harsh it can be to be a minor league lifer is very detailed and rich. His look at the personal impact of Mike Coolbaugh’s death is very moving. His writing is mostly reportorial, but with occasional bursts of poetry. Heart of the Game is a worthwhile addition to the library of anyone interested in sport or in life in America beyond the big cities.