Pro baseball columnist Andy Call talks to first- and third-base coaches after ball strikes and kills Tulsa Drillers first-base coach.
It is a helpless feeling.
“My best defense right now is to keep my eyes open and say my prayers at night,” Luis Alicea said.
Boston’s rookie first-base coach, like many of his peers, has been giving considerable thought to the issue of safety in their workplace. A week ago today, Tulsa Drillers first-base coach Mike Coolbaugh was killed when struck in the head by a line drive during a Double-A game at North Little Rock, Ark. He was 35.
A preliminary autopsy report indicated Coolbaugh died when the ball ruptured an artery in his neck, near the brain. He left behind two children, and his wife is due to delivery another baby in October.
“It’s a horrible thing,” Cleveland Indians Manager Eric Wedge said. “It makes me sick to my stomach to think about it.”
Coaches are aware that their jobs can be dangerous.
The third-base coach finds himself in an especially precarious position with a right-handed hitter at the plate and a runner at second. In order to get a clear view of the runner, the coach must move forward, to about 70 feet away from the batter. That distance leaves little reaction time, especially when the ball is screaming off the bat of a power hitter.
“(Detroit’s) Gary Sheffield is a good example,” said Alicea, who coached third base during his three years as a minor-league manager before joining the Red Sox this spring. “He really gets on top of the plate, and he has some serious power. If you’re that close to Sheffield, and you’ve got your back turned toward the hitter ... there’s not much time to react.”
Most coaches are former players and still athletic enough to get out of the way — or athletic enough to be avoid being hit in a less-than-desirable spot.
“About the only thing you can do is position yourself so the ball hits you in your backside,” Indians third-base coach Joel Skinner said.
First-base coaches are vulnerable as well.
“If I have a guy on first, I really need to watch the first baseman to see if he’s going to try to sneak in behind (the runner),” Alicea said. “I can’t always be watching the batter.”
Minnesota’s Jerry White said he feels safer when one of the Twins reaches first base and hands over his shin guards. White hangs onto them, to raise in front of his face if a ball is headed toward him.
Protective equipment for coaches was a topic of conversation as well this week. Alicea said he would be fine with the idea of wearing a protective shell that fits inside the cap. At least one coach, Colorado’s Glenallen Hill, wasn’t debating his course of action. Hill now wears a batting helmet (without ear flaps) while coaching first base for the Rockies.
Indians bench coach Jeff Datz, who coached third base in both the majors and minors, said he has only taken a hard one-hopper to the leg to date.
“A helmet is something to consider,” Datz said, “but I can’t say for sure I’d wear it.”
Some coaches, such as Detroit’s Gene Lamont, say they won’t wear a helmet, period. Some say there is no foolproof way to avoid the danger of a batted ball. Rich Donnelly, a coach for the Dodgers for 26 seasons, jokingly told MLB.com that only putting a phone booth on the field would allow coaches to feel completely safe.
Change never comes quickly in baseball. Many coaches won’t wear protection simply because it’s never been done that way.
Red Sox Manager Terry Francona said he never gave the issue much thought while working the coaching boxes in both the minor and major leagues.
“I don’t think I ever worried,” Francona told the Boston Herald. “I think I should have.”
Reach Canton Repository sports writer Andy Call at (330) 580-8346 or e-mail email@example.com