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Coach's death puts focus on job risks

Andy Etchebarren said he knew Mike Coolbaugh, not as a friend, but simply as someone he could relate to. During their careers, both had the same occupation: first base coach. And both had close calls with line-drive foul balls.

Etchebarren said anyone who has coached first or third base has been struck with a baseball. But until two days ago, he never knew a coach who died because of it.

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Coolbaugh, a Colorado Rockies minor league coach, died Sunday night after being struck in the head by a line drive in the first base coach's box during a game in North Little Rock, Ark.

Coolbaugh, also the Tulsa Drillers hitting coach, was knocked unconscious by a ball hit by Tino Sanchez in the ninth inning against the Double-A Arkansas Travelers, according to a statement on the Drillers' Web site. The former major leaguer was taken to Baptist Medical Center-North Little Rock, where he was pronounced dead.

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"I've always wondered, for years and years, when something like that was going to happen," said Etchebarren, former OriolesAll-Star catcher and current manager of the short-season Single-A Aberdeen IronBirds. "This game has been going on a long time and this is the first time I've ever heard of that happening. It's a sad thing."

As frequent as those laser foul balls are, Etchebarren, who has managed at each level of the minor leagues, said it's something he rarely thinks about when standing in or around the coach's box. "It never enters my mind," he said.

Elmore "Moe" Hill, first base coach for the Double-A Bowie Baysox, echoed Etchebarren, saying he never paid much attention to the thought of being hit. Hill, 58, who has coached first base for 27 years, said he has had a few close calls with fouls. He said the key is keeping his eyes on the hitter at all times, especially left-handed hitters who will pull in his direction.

Others say the prospect of getting hit is harder to ignore. Tommy Herr, manager of the Hagerstown Suns, a Single-A affiliate of the Washington Nationals, said he is calculated in his approach to avoiding foul balls.

Herr doubles as his team's third base coach and says he knows which hitters are most likely to hit a ball his way. Many times, Herr said, when hitters are ahead in the count, they will get out in front and pull a ball, which makes him conscious of what the count is and who is at the plate.

"You take precautions, at least I do," Herr said. "I'll get as far away as I can, that I feel safe from a big pull hitter. I'll try to get as far into foul territory as I can and still be able to do my job effectively."

Travelers spokesman Phil Elson said Coolbaugh was hit on the side of his head or the forehead and immediately collapsed. Coolbaugh had been coaching first base for Tulsa only a short while, joining the team July 3.

Coolbaugh, 35, who played 44 games for the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals from 2001 to 2002, is survived by his wife, Amanda, and two sons. Amanda, 32, is expecting another child in October. Coolbaugh's brother, Scott, played 167 major league games from 1989 to 1994.

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Etchebarren called what happened to Coolbaugh a freak occurrence in the sport, and most coaches agreed that suddenly being forced to wear protective gear would change what has been commonplace in baseball for many years.

"I really don't know what you can do about that unless you're going to wear a helmet or mask, or shinguards, things that a catcher would wear," Hill said. "And I don't think that's going to happen."

Etchebarren said pitchers, who are closer to being struck by a line drive than coaches, also would have to be evaluated for protection, which he doesn't think is feasible in baseball.

"If a ball is hit just right and hits a pitcher just right, it would probably kill them, too," Etchebarren said. "You can't have a pitcher go out there and wear a helmet and all that stuff. It's just one of those things that happened."

The rules are different in youth sports. Steve Tellefsen, president and chief executive officer of the Babe Ruth League, said adults who coach first and third base in his association are not required to wear helmets. Players at all times, by rule, are required to - even when coaching the bases.

It is the same rule - helmets for youths but not adults- in Little League baseball, said Lance Van Auken, a spokesman. The issue of putting helmets on adults did come up about a decade ago, Van Auken said, but it was never implemented.

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"I checked with our insurance department and they don't recall any base coaches in the past 50 years or so suffering any catastrophic injuries from being struck by a batted ball," Van Auken said. "The safety record has been pretty good."

patrick.gutierrez@baltsun.com sirage.yassin@baltsun.com

The Associated Press contributed to this article.



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