Day 26: 30 baseball books in 30 days of April, ’09: Love and mercy that’s what you need tonight

The book: “Heart of the Game: Life, Death and Mercy in Minor League America”

The author: S.L. Price

How to find it: Ecco, 320 pages, $24.99


Where we’d go looking for it: Amazon has it (linked here).

The scoop: The excerpted part in the April 20 issue of Sports Illustrated — because Price is an esteemed SI senior writer since 1994 — doesn’t do this book justice, and may confuse the reader as to what the intent of the project really is.

We aren’t out looking for more reminders about what kind of damage a pitched ball can do to a batter. But this is what we get iin SI — Ray Chapman, Tony Conigliaro, Dickie Thon. … Serious injuries. Death, in the first case. Add to that the story that came out over the weekend about the high school player who died from being hit by a pitch (linked here).

Surprisingly, no pro player on any level has been killed by a batted ball. Of the 76 deaths caused in the manner — five of which were a batter killed by his own foul tip — all were in amateur games, with kids as young as 6.

But there’s the story of Mike Coolbaugh, the minor league first-base coach killed by a batted ball in 2007, which led to all base coaches wearing protective helmets (whether Larry Bowa likes it or not). Price’s book is really connecting the Coolbaugh story to the one of Tino Sanchez, the journeyman infielder who hit the foul ball on July 22, 2007 in Arkansas, resulting in his coach’s death.

Price weaves the two families together, in how they shared in the minor triumphs but most-times struggle in a career through baseball. Then this dark day brought them to together — luckily, as Price points out, “the moment itself has slipped past the clutch of modern experience. No television camera captured the ball hitting the coach; no team cameras focused on Coolbaugh as he was struck or falling. Despite the prevalence of cell phone photography and portable recorders and the Internet’s appetite for every recorded event, no Zapruder will surface with footage of the blow. It’s as if, in that sudden erasure of noise just after, a kind hand consipred to wipe away any cheapening visuals, any reductive evidence of so public an accident.” That extends to the official scorebook, by the way. Sanchez fouled the pitch off on a 3-2 count. The game was stopped. The at-bat was never recorded. So Sanchez’s 2,267 career trips to the plate is one short of the one that ended his desire to play baseball.

What Price masterfully does in this book of extreme heartbreak is near poetry. It would be a disservice to try to recreate the paragraphs in extended excerpts here — which maybe SI had the same problem with a few weeks ago. The tone set from the beginning, and the fading back to put into context how both lives came to that point, its artistically beautiful, sensative to the circumstances, yet resonates in detail that comes only from a delicate way of interviewing, and even more painfully created on the pages to emit the proper emotions without having pity on either side.

Price also manages to get deeper into the meaning of baseball in such a way that he can touch on how the sport’s future hangs in the balance with all the scandal of steroids, and whether it really remains “America’s pasttime.”

On the minor-league level, however, Price sees the price of community paying much larger dividends to the sport than it could on most any other level.

After reading this, you’ll never forget Mike Coolbaugh or Tino Sanchez. That’s all one could ask.

How it goes down in the scorebook: One of the sweetest swings of journalism from 2008 that any baseball fan could possibily have the pleasure of reading and reflecting. If you have a free afternoon today, pick it up and invest the time in soaking it all in.

And for an encore, Brian Wilson sings the song he wrote long ago that seems to fit so well with the book title:

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