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Local coaches aware they are in harm's way

Three weeks ago today, Modesto Nuts manager Jerry Weinstein was manning the third-base coaching box at Stockton Ballpark when Nuts shortstop Chris Nelson took an early swing at an inside pitch.

Instinctively, Weinstein did what he could to avoid the ball heading his direction at more than 100 mph, but it made direct contact with his left thigh.

Weinstein said Monday he remembers thinking he was lucky the ball wasn't about three feet higher because it could have killed him instead of leaving an ugly bruise.

In retrospect, he shudders at that thought, particularly while discussing the Sunday night death of Tulsa Drillers first base coach Mike Coolbaugh during a game in Little Rock, Ark. Coolbaugh was hit in the head by a line drive.

"I had no chance that night," Weinstein said. "I was just very lucky, but I didn't make adjustments. I'm going to change my positioning in light of what happened. I'm going to move closer to the dugout, but a ball can find me there, too."

Weinstein said he didn't know Coolbaugh, who became Tulsa's hitting coach July 3 (the day Weinstein was struck in Stockton) following the resignation of coach Orlando Merced.

But there are strong ties between the Modesto and Tulsa teams. The Drillers are the next step up the Colorado Rockies' ladder for players in Modesto, and 22 players on the current Tulsa roster have played for the Nuts.

Second-year Drillers manager Stu Cole was the first Modesto Nuts manager in 2005 and was standing in the third-base coaching box at the time of Sunday's tragedy.

"It happened so fast," Cole said. "It was like a blur. It's kind of hard to imagine him having any time to get away. I've seen a lot of guys get hit by a pitch or with a batted ball, and they always come out of it OK. This situation didn't turn out that way."

Matt Miller, who played with Modesto last season, singled to lead off the top of the ninth inning and was taking his lead at first when switch-hitting catcher Tino Sanchez hit the line drive that struck Coolbaugh.

"Everybody is in deep pain right now," Cole said. "It's something that has happened to one of the family, and we just lost a family member."

Base coaches are in constant danger of being struck by a foul ball. They're normally closer to the action than any player except the pitcher and catcher, and when runners are on base, their attention isn't on the batter.

The risk of serious injury might be greater at the high school and college levels, where the batters swing aluminum bats. Studies have indicated baseballs hit by aluminum bats carry 5-7 percent greater initial velocity than when hit by wood bats swung at the same speed.

"I bet I've been hit four or five times as a base coach, and a couple of those knocked me off my feet," said Jim Davis, baseball coach and athletic director at Johansen High. "Never in my wildest dreams would I think I would get hit where it could kill me.

"Every time you get hit and you look into the dugout, everybody is laughing, not knowing how close you were to getting hurt. And some of these high school kids are strong enough to where they could hit the ball hard enough to not give a coach time to move."

Escalon coach Greg Largent was kept out of the coaching box last spring by a knee injury, but he said he can count on being struck at least twice a year.

"I've gotten away with just bruises," Largent said. "But we all like to think we're still young enough to get out of the way. Now, it's something you're going to have to think about. It's unfortunate, but you could see where this could happen."

A tragedy on this scale almost happened in June 2005. Los Angeles Dodgers third base coach Glenn Hoffman was struck in the head by a line drive during batting practice and suffered a concussion. He returned to the coaching box several weeks later, and for a brief time wore a batting helmet on the field.

"We're so steeped in tradition in baseball that I don't ever see coaches wearing helmets," Weinstein said.

In September 2004, during the final game of the California League North Division championship series, Modesto A's pitcher Brad Ziegler suffered a fractured skull and concussion when struck in the forehead by a ball hit by San Jose outfielder Fred Lewis.

Ziegler complained of headaches throughout the offseason and into 2005 spring training but eventually returned to the mound. He now pitches for the Sacramento River Cats.

And April 26 this season, also in Little Rock, Tulsa pitcher Jon Asahina suffered a fractured skull, concussion and split eardrum in the same manner as Ziegler. Asahina, a former Visalia player, only recently returned to the Tulsa roster.

Modesto players were among the first people outside of Little Rock to know of the tragedy. The Nuts were on the team bus returning from a game in Rancho Cucamonga late Sunday night when several players received text messages from friends on the Tulsa roster.

"What a tragedy," Weinstein said. "I'm trying to do my game reports on the bus, and all I can think about is how this guy is dead and about his young kids. It's a reality check."

Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at bvanderbeek@modbee.com or 578-2300.

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