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An evening to remember


Round Rock honors fallen hero Mike Coolbaugh

The infinitive "to remember" can have slightly different meanings depending on the context. It can mean that something is memorable, that observers will remember the event for a long time. It can also mean that the event is being held to honor and remember something or someone important.

Both definitions fit the evening of April 10, 2009 in Round Rock, Texas.

That's when the Express of the Pacific Coast League paused to honor Mike Coolbaugh. He was the team's everyday third baseman in 2003 and 2005, and without a doubt was one of the most popular players in the ten-season existence of the Express franchise. Following his retirement as an active player in 2006, he turned to coaching. He joined the Rockies organization, and on the fateful night of July 22, 2007 while coaching first base for the Tulsa Drillers, the 35-year-old Mike was killed when he was struck by a line drive.

You're no doubt familiar with this tragedy. How he left behind a pregnant wife and two young sons. How the baseball world was sent reeling in the wake of this unimaginable occurrence. Sports Illustrated recounted every facet of the events two months later -- and it's an article that I will remember for the rest of my life.

"All of baseball mourns this terrible tragedy," commissioner Bud Selig said at the time. And while fans everywhere were deeply saddened at Mike's passing, fans in Round Rock were particularly devastated. I should know. I'm one of them, as I live about five miles from the Dell Diamond, and sat behind Mike's position at third base many, many nights during his tenure with the Express.

So it was only fitting that the team honor -- and celebrate -- his memory. On the first Friday night of the 2009 season, less than two years after Mike left us, the Express dedicated its contest against the Iowa Cubs to Mike Coolbaugh and his young family.

And I was privileged to be one of the 10,050 fans in attendance that night.

The evening began with Mike's two sons throwing out the ceremonial first pitches. Joey, now 6 (above left) and his five-year-old brother Jacob (right) fired pitches with a form that would make any father proud. Very appropriately, Joey's adorable sister Anne Michael, just 16 months old, spun blissfully on the mound behind him as he threw his pitch.

The emotions spiked upward prior to the top of the 7th inning. That's when the team presented Mike's widow Mandy with three keepsakes. These are shown in the photo at the top of this page -- from left: a jersey with the #32 that Mike wore; the third-base bag that the team retired and has had on display at the stadium since 2007; and a handsome painting of Mike in his Express uniform. The artist was Opie Otterstad, and he is next to his artwork in the photo.

Mandy then addressed the crowd. In a voice shaking with emotion, she thanked the Express and its fans for everything they'd done for her family, and said that they will want to continue attending games at the Dell Diamond, where her husband truly loved to play. "When we are here, we feel so close to Mike," she said. She's shown in the photo above with her two sons at her side, and Express CEO Reid Ryan to her right.

The ceremony reached a crescendo when Coolbaugh's uniform number was officially retired. It appeared on the left-field wall, as camermen shot the scene and the fans cheered enthusiastically.

Following the ceremony, the keepsakes and the family moved upstairs to the fabulous new Intel Club. Here, well-wishers came by to admire the painting and to offer encouragement to Mandy.

The evening came to a close with a tribute to Mike on the stadium's video board, followed immediately by one of the Friday Night Fireworks displays that the Express is famous for.

In a month in which ballpark news was being made from Reno to New York with parks opening their doors costing tens or hundreds of millions of dollars -- and in one case, over a billion -- the most memorable ballpark event was occurring at a nine-year-old stadium in the suburbs of Austin. The Express, who play in one of the sport's top facilities (below) and are a first-class organization if there ever was one, presented its fans and one very deserving family an evening to remember.