Former Miami Herald scribe and current Sports Illustrated senior writer S.L. Price makes his living where sports and culture intersect. His 2000 book Pitching Around Fidel was an exploration of the crumbling Cuban sports machine, and the importance of play to a people deprived of basic freedoms. His newest non-fiction tome, Heart of the Game, gains the reader access to a culture that might just be as closed to outsiders and as arbitrarily ruled as Fidel's fiefdom: minor-league baseball.
In a July 2007 contest between two bush league ball-clubs, a first base coach named Mike Coolbaugh was killed almost instantly when a batted ball cometed into his neck. The ball had been hit by a player named Tino Sanchez. Both Coolbaugh and Sanchez were minor league "lifers", with a combined 28 years of pro ball between them. The tragic accident was national news for a moment, but with a merciful lack of video, the sports media quickly moved on.
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Price starts with that fateful foul ball on a Sunday night in Little Rock, Arkansas, and unspools the tape of both men's lives--one which began in Binghampton, New York, the other in Puerto Rico--to impart on us an understanding of what life is like in the minor leagues. And it's bitter, mean, and unfair. Time and again, deserving and talented men are robbed of the chance to fulfill their dream because of circumstance, luck, or prejudice, and the real-life Moonlight Graham doesn't shrug off his thwarted big-league opportunity. "Fans look at baseball as this sort of 'Field of Dreams' environment of magic and romanticism," says Price. "Baseball players really don't. Everybody's got an 'I got screwed' story. I wanted to write an adult book about baseball, that told the truth about this very tough existence."
Coolbaugh's 'I got screwed' story has him being passed in the Toronto Blue Jay organization's third base hierarchy in favor of less-talented bonus-baby Chris Weinke, who would later quit the sport to become, at age 28, the oldest Heisman Trophy winner in history for Florida State University. Coolbaugh accumulated only 83 major league at-bats, although scouts insisted he had the talent to be at least a benchwarmer in the Bigs, before retiring from playing and being killed at age 35. Says Price: "I identify with Mike. I think most of us are more like Mike than we are like Alex Rodriguez."
Price will speak at 3 pm on Sunday, November 15, in a sports panel that also includes authors of new books on a female wrestler and baseball owner George Steinbrenner.