Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Kind words from an author ...

Boston, raining & cold.

It's not often that my colleagues and I in the freelance writing biz get a thoughtful response to what we publish. Much of our craft takes place in a vacuum, which I guess is a good and a bad thing. We're typically insulated from criticism, but rarely hear praise, other than the kind words of our editors (which, I'll add, are always appreciated, probably more than they know!).

This past Sunday, I had a book review published in the Boston Globe. The book - Heart of the Game - was one of the most powerful I'd read in years. The review, however, languished in a holding pattern at the Globe for months, the victim of ever-shrinking editorial real estate. It wasn't anybody's fault, really ... there just wasn't any space. Last week, however, came the word that the review would run. I was relieved, not only because it meant a paycheck, but also because I felt strongly that S.L. Price's superb work deserved the ink. I struggled mightily writing the review, because I wanted to do the book justice. It touched me on a personal and emotional level, and it's never easy to write about those feelings without sounding self-absorbed. But I was pleased with the final result, and grateful that the review would see the light of day.

Then, on Monday, I received a note from the author, one that made all the extra effort worthwhile. It read, in part: "I can't tell you how much your review means to me: in some ways, you actually explain some of what I was trying to do better than I could ever articulate. It's rare to feel that something you've written has been met, even exceeded, by the understanding of the reader. That happened here, with your thoughtful, well-written, essay."

I let Price's words rattle around inside my head for a while, sitting in my cramped office, a sense of contentment warming me. I've always said that I enjoy writing because it gives me a wonderful opportunity to connect with others. And I was happy to know that two people who don't know one another, two fathers who both cherish sports and the lessons they teach us, connected because of this fine book.

Here is the review, which ran with the accompanying photograph of Tino Sanchez, sitting beside Mike Coolbaugh's jersey. It probably goes without saying that I highly recommend Heart of the Game, whether your a sports fan, or just a fan of the human race.

Death and life in baseball's minor leagues

Judging a book by its cover is the cardinal sin for a reviewer. But the photograph that adorns “Heart of the Game’’ is riveting. It shows Mike Coolbaugh, a long-time minor league baseball player, his uniform-clad back to the camera. In his arms are his two young sons, Joey and Jake, each with a hand on their father’s broad shoulders. Knowing he’s gone, killed in one of baseball’s most freakish accidents, brought me to the edge of tears.

Yet this is where veteran Sports Illustrated writer S.L. Price weaves his magic. Genuine and raw, “Heart of the Game’’ is a heartfelt work of despair, triumph, and redemption. Price presents the lives of two minor league “lifers’’ - Coolbaugh and Tino Sanchez - on a cataclysmic collision course with the unerring eye of a superb journalist and the grounded sensitivity of a poet. True, there is a sense of dread permeating Price’s book, but his prose never turns maudlin. We know the ending isn’t happy. But to stop reading would be far worse, tantamount to quitting on a man who never quit himself.

“Mike kept playing after his dream died because he had a family to feed,’’ writes Price, describing Sanchez’s first impressions of Coolbaugh. “Mike has a passion tempered - inflamed, even - by rejection and pain.’’

Essentially, Price takes a sound-bite tragedy and begins digging, dissecting it. The short story is this: Coolbaugh’s life was cut short on a warm July night in 2007 in a pristine new ballpark in North Little Rock, Ark. At 35, he was less than month into a new coaching career after struggling for 17 years in professional baseball, mostly in the minors. He had been appointed hitting coach for the Double-A Tulsa Drillers (a Colorado Rockies affiliate), and was still getting comfortable in this new environment, serving as first base coach that star-crossed night. Then, lightning struck. With a swing of his bat, Sanchez sent a foul ball rocketing 90 feet down the first base line. It struck Coolbaugh flush in the neck, just behind his left ear. “Its report was muffled, moist, like an ax sinking hard into a patch of rotten timber,’’ writes Price.

Coolbaugh was killed instantly. The moments, days, and weeks that follow are absolutely gut wrenching. Sanchez, a native of Puerto Rico who had hoped to get the coaching job won by Coolbaugh, reached him first, even before the first baseman or the first-base umpire. Back home in Texas, Mandy Coolbaugh was pregnant with the couple’s third child, a daughter. In the hills of Yauco, Puerto Rico, Sanchez’s wife Annie was also expecting a daughter.

Throughout, Price is respectful but never fawning. It’s clear that, while he may have approached the project as a journalist, he developed an admiration and deep respect for those whose lives were irrevocably altered that July evening. He describes Coolbaugh’s taskmaster father, the spirited sibling rivalry with older brother Scott, the seismic shift in his family’s faith and foundations, and the reverberations felt through the entire Colorado Rockies organization (Red Sox fans will recall the sweep of the Rockies in 2007; what they don’t know is that the Colorado players unselfishly voted Coolbaugh a full $233,505 share).

Price delights in exposing the inequities of minor league ball, as if hoping to balance those scales of injustice. While the general consensus is that our national pastime is as wholesome as Grandma’s apple pie, Price torches the myth and rips open the game’s seedy underside. “Minor league baseball is an endless winnowing process,’’ he writes. “Cast for months into a confined space where people are promoted, demoted, traded, and released every day, where today’s teammate is tomorrow’s memory, players literally live with rejection. No one can truly relax; even the most secure prospects sense the insidious thrum of fear.’’

But in these players, and many of the long-time coaches and scouts, Price finds many admirable qualities: perseverance, integrity, humility, grit, patience, compassion, and, yes, even love. “There are so many clich├ęs I could rattle off,’’ says Matt Miller, the Drillers left fielder who heard Mike’s last words. “But what I’ve taken away is: You’ve just got to respect what you do. Mike obviously loved baseball, and if he wasn’t a baseball player he could’ve done something else and been just as passionate. That’s important. That’s what I want to incorporate in my life. Whatever you want to do, go after it with passion. Just don’t quit.’’

The role of faith, or fate, or any celestial connection in Coolbaugh’s life and death, of course, remains a mystery. “God had a plan for Mike,’’ Mandy says, “and there was nothing we could do to stop it.’’

The challenge is to keep reading through the tears and the inevitable swell of sorrow. But you will. Like Coolbaugh, like his family, like Sanchez, you won’t quit. You’ll finish it. And afterwards, there’s a very good chance that you’ll look at your own world a bit differently, with more appreciation. As strange as it might seem, given the tragic nature of Coolbaugh’s story, you’ll feel better for having allowed Price to share it with you.


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