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Little Leaguer Jacob Coolbaugh and his mom carry on the baseball tradition -- and mission -- of his late father, Mike

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Jacob Coolbaugh remembers father Mike (1:17)

Little League World Series player Jacob Coolbaugh shares some of his favorite memories of his father, Mike, who was killed during a minor league game when he was struck in the neck by a line drive. (1:17)

Each scary episode at a ballpark spurs Mandy Coolbaugh to express concern.

A pitcher takes a line drive off his head. A fan in the stands gets hit. A foul ball caroms off a dugout wall, striking No. 32 of the Miami Marlins on the back of the head and knocks him off the bench, sending him sprawling on the ground.

That number, 32, was one Mandy's late husband, Mike, wore during his long career in professional baseball.

Mike Coolbaugh was coaching first base for the Tulsa Drillers, the Colorado Rockies' Double-A affiliate at the time, on July 22, 2007, when a foul ball struck him in the neck. The blow caused a ruptured artery. An hour later Coolbaugh was pronounced dead, at the age of 35.

He left behind two sons, Joey and Jacob, ages 5 and 3, respectively. Mandy was pregnant with their third child at the time Mike died. Their daughter, Anne Michael, was born three months later.

When the Rockies reached the National League Division Series that fall, they invited Joey and Jacob to throw ceremonial first pitches before Game 3. After Colorado played in the World Series, the team gave a full postseason share to the Coolbaugh family.

The next season, Major League Baseball mandated helmets for base coaches. Mandy told Outside the Lines then, "I believe there's going to be something good that comes out of Mike's death someday. We may never know what it is, but if this is the start of protecting players and coaches, then I think it's a good thing."


Mandy and I have been in touch about the dangers of baseball -- and how to counteract them with protective measures -- since I produced "Reaction to Tragedy," a 2008 Outside the Lines TV report about Mike's legacy.

The day after the ricochet off the dugout wall that decked Miami's Derek Dietrich this May -- fortunately, he was uninjured -- Mandy emailed me, wondering if the incident might "help add to the discussion of safety." She was incredulous that dugouts for big leaguers, as well as for her two boys and their peers, still have inadequate protection.

"I just feel like I continue to see these accidents where it would be so simple to have prevented them," she said.

But as Mandy has learned, change is not simple and resistance to it is the norm. In 2008, the first season after her husband's death, the majority of big league coaches opposed the new requirement that they wear helmets. The mere sight of coaches wearing them took time to seem natural.

When Mandy, now 41, used to take Joey and Jacob to see Mike's games, he insisted they station themselves behind home plate, where netting would shield them from foul balls. Following several gruesome incidents in which fans were struck by balls and shattered bats at games last season, MLB issued a recommendation that stadium netting at least protect the area between the dugouts. Although it was not an edict, the teams all complied -- and a few installed netting extending to the far edges of the dugouts.

Some ticket holders expressed dismay, saying they accept the peril that comes with proximity, and that netting interferes with their sense of closeness to the action in seats that are indeed close to it.


Mandy emailed again in July, this time heralding the happy news that Jacob, now 12, and his Little League team from McAllister Park in San Antonio had advanced to the Southwest Regional in Waco, Texas. Ever the advocate, Mandy said the moment might also be an opportunity to raise safety awareness.

"I don't want my boys to be afraid, I just want people to be aware of the dangers of baseball," Mandy later told the Longhorn Network. "While it's a great sport, be smart about it, too."

"I know from everyone telling me, he was a really great man. I really miss him so. When he was killed, he happened to be wearing number 29, so that's why I wear 29. When I step on the field, I kind of feel more pride and passion because I'm like re-stepping my father's footsteps."

Jacob Coolbaugh on his late father, Mike

She stood in the wings, unable to hold back tears as Jacob told LHN about the dad he lost when he was so young.

"I know from everyone telling me, he was a really great man," Jacob said. "I really miss him so. When he was killed, he happened to be wearing number 29, so that's why I wear 29. When I step on the field, I kind of feel more pride and passion because I'm like re-stepping my father's footsteps."

Jacob also follows in his brother's footsteps, etching "MC-29" on his helmet and cap, just as Joey did when he played for McAllister. Beyond displaying his dad's initials and last number, Joey, who is about to begin high school, also set an example by studying videotape of Mike from when he played.


Last week, a euphoric email came from Mandy: "My son is going to Williamsport!!!"

McAllister made it to the Little League World Series for the third time in seven years and Mandy was still giddy about it when she appeared on Outside the Lines on Monday. "Here we are, down to the last eight American teams, and it's very surreal," she said.

Wearing a "29" necklace, her tone transformed as she explained her motivation for speaking out about expanding protection for sports participants and spectators.

"It's important to me now because both my boys are playing and my daughter will eventually one day get into sports too," Mandy said. "I got a call at night telling me that my husband had just been killed. I don't want anyone to have to go through that -- whether it's their son, their husband, their daughter, no one should have to do that."

Mandy said players at the highest level should consider the messages they send to children with their decisions. For example, no major league pitchers are wearing the protective headwear that was approved for this season, in a joint initiative of MLB and the players' association.

"Big leaguers are their idols, they're their role models, and if a big league pitcher is not going to wear protection over his head, you know the kids don't want to do it," she said.


Mandy and the other McAllister moms are in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, wearing bright orange nail polish, as it's the team's new color. In their first-round game, Jacob and his teammates will face Bowling Green, Kentucky, at 8 p.m. ET Friday on ESPN.

From the time her sons started playing the game as toddlers, baseball for Mandy has been a mix of memories and misgivings, eagerness and elation. "It has always been hard to see my boys walk out onto the field, but there's always been joy and pride in it too," she said.

Jacob will be wearing No. 6 in the World Series, not his accustomed 29, as the players were assigned random new uniforms upon arrival. Mandy responded to Jacob's disappointment about the change by looking at the bright side.

She told him it was Hall of Famer Stan Musial's number, adding, "He wasn't too bad."

William Weinbaum is a producer for the ESPN Enterprise Unit and often reports on sports safety issues.