Cooper shows students how to shine
Pitching coach melds talent, experience and know-how
CHICAGO -- If manager Ozzie Guillen currently stands as the King of Chicago, after leading the White Sox to the franchise's first World Series appearance since 1959, then Don Cooper appears to be heir to the throne.
It's not so much that the affable Cooper would be next in line if Guillen were to abdicate after the White Sox won the 2005 World Series. But with an American League Championship Series record four straight complete games against the Angels and one of the best pitching staffs in all of baseball, Cooper's name seems to be on the tip of everyone's tongue from coast to coast.
Cooper has done extensive print interviews pretty much each and every day during the postseason. He is a frequently requested guest on sports radio talk shows, and he even appeared live in studio Wednesday as a non-reporter guest for an hour-long talk show on Comcast Sports Net Chicago's "Chicago Tribune Live."
Whereas Guillen pulls no punches and holds nothing back in his responses, Cooper cautiously approaches each query and often provides more information with a simple look or through the ability to read between the lines. Whereas Guillen is immensely entertaining in an in-your-face, shock jock sort of way, Cooper truly can turn a phrase.
Take his television appearance Wednesday as an example. Dan Jiggets, the former offensive lineman for the Chicago Bears and current host of the show, was asking Cooper about the importance of Cleveland testing the White Sox down the stretch.
Cooper agreed that the club's September struggles, and ensuing sense of relief after clinching the American League Central, played a big role in its current near-flawless postseason effort. Then, he summed up the situation in one perfect line.
"We saw the white light and didn't die," Cooper said. "So, we are not afraid of death anymore."
The White Sox shouldn't really be afraid of anything baseball-related with the four starters and seven relievers making up their staff. Of course, general manager Ken Williams deserves a large share of the credit for bringing in such rotation stalwarts as Freddy Garcia (from Seattle), Jose Contreras and Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez (from the Yankees).
But it's Cooper who has helped improve already steady performer Mark Buehrle and take a young but sometimes inconsistent hurler such as Jon Garland to All-Star status.
"A lot of people don't give him as much credit as he deserves," Buehrle said of Cooper. "But he has this staff ready every day."
"Coop is probably one of the smartest baseball men I know," closer Bobby Jenks added. "He knows what to say to every pitcher out here that will work for them. He knows what you need to hear to take you mentally to the next level."
Jenks is a great example of Cooper's work. The burly right-hander has combined his 100-mph fastball and 86-mph offspeed stuff with the confidence instilled in him by the pitching coach beginning his 18th year in the organization, including three full seasons at the Major League level.
If one of Cooper's relievers pitches two scoreless innings and then allows the game-winning run to score in the third, Cooper will focus more on what went right as opposed to what went wrong.
"For a guy to be as positive as he is all the time and enjoy what he does and never really be negative, it makes our job easier," said reliever Cliff Politte, whose ERA dropped from 4.38 over 54 games in 2004 to 2.00 during 68 games this season.
"He'll say, 'You did get two outs and this is how you did it. Don't look at the home run pitch,'" Politte added. "It makes our job easier that there are positives taken from the bad outing you just had. He stresses to us that we will have the opportunity to pitch again tomorrow."
The White Sox team ERA stood at 4.17 in 2003, in Cooper's first full year, with Neal Cotts, Mike Porzio, Dan Wright and Josh Stewart trying to hold down the fifth starter's slot in the rotation. The bullpen also included a struggling Billy Koch and Rick White, not to mention Jose Paniagua for one memorable game in September.
In 2004, the team ERA rose to 4.91, as the White Sox tried eight different pitchers as the No. 5 starter. That group finished a combined 5-16, with an ERA near 11.00.
With this year's staff strengthened from top to bottom, the South Siders tied with Cleveland for the lowest ERA in the American League. Cooper talks about his staff as a father would boast proudly of his children.
And he can pick out individual traits about each one that makes them successful as a whole. Garcia needs to maintain his same steely focus shown throughout the game in the first inning, where he tends to let up a bit. Garland's key is aggressive rhythm and tempo and driving the baseball, not trying to place it.
Where the entire White Sox staff is concerned after this five-day layoff leading into Saturday's World Series opener, a break extending two weeks for most of the bullpen, the key is harnessing the energy produced by this crucial series.
"Don't be concerned about getting the ball. Be more concerned about what you are going to do when you get the ball," Cooper said. "Harness the energy, which will be electric.
"Make the glove your first and last thought and bring the energy to the glove. It could be an unbeatable combination, as we've seen the last two series."
This vast White Sox success, which begins and ends with the pitching, reportedly drew interest for Cooper from the Yankees, as a possible replacement for Mel Stottlemyre. The New York native, who pitched in seven games for the Yankees in 1985, called the stories flattering, but added that he has no interest in leaving the White Sox.
Williams previously stated that Cooper was "unavailable," signed through 2006. On Wednesday, Williams mentioned there had been no contact from other teams and comically attributed those reports to "Don's PR firm at work for him." Even the heir to the throne, with his finger on the pitching staff's pulse, can be treated as the court jester every now and then.
"I have to be very careful with what I say, because he'll use everything I say about him against me in contract negotiations," said Williams with a smile, when addressing the media over the weekend. "I don't think you guys want him. He's not as good as advertised."
"The type of people they are. The way we talk before, after and during games and even during sidelines," Cooper added on a serious note, in regard to his staff. "This is the biggest memory I'll ever have."
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.