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Former East Lake star Chris Coghlan channels tragedy of father's death into triumph on way to NL rookie of the year

CLEARWATER — In the cage, there is no grief. No anger, no worries, no regrets. Just the rhythmic serenade of a bat hitting a ball.

Whack … whack … whack.

It's late at night, and the place is nearly deserted. The other students have gone home, one of the owners is cleaning up, and the teenager continues to hit one baseball after another off the tee in the batting cage.

Whack … whack … whack.

It is the fall of 2001. Or maybe the summer of 2002. For too long, the days have seemed interchangeable. Ever since the final afternoon of his sophomore year when Chris Coghlan came home from East Lake High School and found out his father, Timothy, had died that morning in a car accident while on a business trip 1,000 miles away.

And so now many of his nights conclude in the cages of the Winning Inning Baseball Academy alongside owner Roy Silver. Chris' father used to bring him here once a week for instruction. Now he seems to come daily for refuge.

Whack … whack … whack.

Of the four Coghlan children, Chris had always been the hardest to figure. When his mother broke the news to him that June afternoon, he walked down the hallway into his bedroom, then closed and locked the door.

"Just an awful, awful time," his mother, Heather Roefar, said on Monday afternoon. "Each of the kids handled it differently. My daughters wanted to talk about Timmy incessantly. Chris didn't want to talk about it at all. It was like a juggling act trying to figure out what I could say in front of the girls and what things Chris and (brother) Kevin needed to hear.

"Chris handled it by going to hit baseballs with Roy at night. It was like he channeled all of his emotions into baseball."

For a moment, she pauses. Maybe to reflect, maybe to give thanks.

"Out of this terrible event, something wonderful has emerged."

The boy who sought solace in a cage all of those years ago saw his name written into baseball's history books Monday afternoon. Coghlan was named the 2009 National League rookie of the year after hitting .321 for the Florida Marlins.

"It's a wonderful honor," Coghlan said. "I feel very blessed."

It's hard to imagine this is the same kid who had trouble attracting college scholarship offers after his junior year at East Lake. The same kid who was selected 540 picks after Dunedin High's Ryan Harvey was taken with the sixth pick of the first round in 2003.

Coghlan was never an obvious baseball talent. Not even to many who were paying close attention.

He was a little pudgy in high school. Just some baby fat around the edges but enough to make scouts and recruiters wonder about his athleticism. He also was not much of a power hitter. He hit .573 as a senior at East Lake but had only two homers on the year.

Coghlan played middle infield in high school, but no one was really sure where he fit defensively. The Diamondbacks took a flyer on him in the 18th round of the '03 draft and told him they wanted to convert him into a catcher.

He went to Ole Miss instead.

Three years later, after he hit .302, .357 and .350 at Mississippi, the Marlins used a sandwich pick in between the first and second rounds on Coghlan in 2006. He was 23 and playing second base in Triple A this May when he was told the big-league club was going to give him a week to learn how to play leftfield before he would be called up.

A day later, the plans were changed. The Marlins were calling him up immediately. The first fly ball he ever caught as a leftfielder was at Coors Field on May 8.

He got off to a slow start, but, by season's end, Coghlan was the hottest hitter in the National League. He hit .385 in August and .390 in September. He is one of a dozen players to hit .320 or higher with at least 500 at-bats in the season in which he made his big-league debut. Among the others? Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Albert Pujols.

"He has a grit about him. This confidence and toughness that really shows up on the field," said Marlins assistant general manager Dan Jennings, who has known Coghlan since his sons played with him on the East Lake baseball team. "He's like an Ichiro. A Wade Boggs or a Rod Carew. I hate using comps, or dropping Hall of Fame names on a young player, but that's the kind of hitter he is. If we continue this conversation 10 years from now, it wouldn't surprise me at all if we're talking about two batting titles he's won.

"And the best part of all of this is he's an even better person than a hitter. His mother is a sweetheart, and you can tell his father raised him right in the time they had together."

Timothy Coghlan was a police officer in Maryland for nearly 20 years before being injured during a SWAT team raid. The family moved to north Pinellas County in the late 1990s, and Coghlan began a new career as a law enforcement teacher. He was in Maryland for a class when he was killed in a head-on collision in the early morning of June 5, 2001.

Later that afternoon, with Chris locked in his room, his mother had a friend call Silver and Randy Holland at the Winning Inning Baseball Academy. Silver came and spent hours with Chris in his bedroom that night.

"There were a lot of tears. A lot of anger. He had a real problem with the idea that he never got a chance to say goodbye," Silver said. "It's one of those moments where you realize you're living in a storm. But the good thing is we know storms never last."

In the coming months and years, Coghlan would call Silver at night to find out if he was still at the academy. He would show up with a friend to pitch to him or, if no friends were around, he would hit off a tee while Silver worked with other students.

Usually, when everyone else had left, they would sit around and talk into the night.

"A little while back, Chris' brother Kevin came to see me. He said he didn't know who to talk to about it, but he had to tell somebody. He said he thought he grew up a better man because of the lessons he learned after his father died," Silver said. "Two months later, Chris comes to me and says he has something to talk about. And he says the exact same thing. He said he was a better student, a better baseball player, a better man because of what he went through after his father died.

"I told him, 'Don't feel bad about that. That's what your father would have wanted.' I told him, 'Your father would be so proud to hear you say that today.' "

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

2009 NL Rookie of the Year

Former East Lake star Chris Coghlan channels tragedy of father's death into triumph on way to NL rookie of the year 11/16/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 17, 2009 12:10am]

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