The Audacity of Hope

By Richard Justice
Updated: February 16, 2008

Cecil Cooper

Cecil Cooper

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — About the best thing to happen to the Astros the past two years is that someone finally gave Cecil Cooper the chance to manage a big league baseball team.

To the hundreds of friends he has made over the years, to the people who admire him on a variety of levels, he’s a living, breathing example that good things sometimes do happen to good people.

“Where do you want me to start?” Bud Selig said. Your call, commissioner.

“He’s a good man. That’s the first thing,” Selig said. “He knows the game. He was a great player, maybe a Hall of Famer. That would be an interesting discussion. He carries himself the right way, tries to do the right thing.”

A quiet leader

Sometimes people like Cooper never get this kind of opportunity. He’s a quiet man, a man of deep religious convictions, and, until the last couple of years, he saw campaigning for a job as unseemly.

And some general managers are uncomfortable putting quiet men in leadership roles. They want Bill Parcells or Larry Bowa. They want noise.

Tony Dungy faced many of the same hurdles before getting his first opportunity. Last summer, Cooper finally got lucky.

Drayton McLane became so disgusted with his team that he fired GM Tim Purpura and manager Phil Garner with 31 games remaining. He turned to Cooper, in part, because he was an obvious and easy choice from the coaching staff.

Cooper was a caretaker in trying to end a bad season with some dignity. Now at 58, his real chance begins this spring with an overhauled roster and a full spring training to shape the club in his image.

Devil in the details

“I’m a straight-up guy,” he said. “I’m a pretty fair guy. I’m also a firm, strict kind of guy when it comes to details. I want things done and done right. I’m going to impress upon them that’s what I want. I don’t cut any corners or try to sugarcoat things. As a player coming through the minor leagues, you don’t always get it that way.”

Cooper’s long and winding road includes 17 years as a player and a 20-year journey at a variety of jobs. He’s about as prepared as a man can be for a position that’s peculiar, stressful and second-guessed at least 162 days a year.

Baseball’s best managers combine communication skills, competence and honesty. Players must think their manager believes in them. Good managers never, ever criticize their players publicly.

Way down the list of important qualities is when to take out the pitcher or send up a pinch hitter. In the end, it’s the ability to get a group of diverse players to perform as one that separates the good ones from the rest. Dusty Baker is a first-rate manager, not because he’s a strategic genius, but because players respect him and play hard for him.

A player of merit

One thing many of these Astros might never know is how good a player their manager was. He finished with 2,192 career hits and was a five-time All-Star. He was in the top 10 in American League MVP voting four straight years (1980-83).

He seems not to care whether they know he accomplished more as a player than most of them will. It’s that attitude, that patience and quiet self-confidence that should serve him well over a long season.

“I sense that he’s comfortable in his own skin,” general manager Ed Wade said.

Cooper doesn’t swear, drink or smoke. He has taught Bible classes and led singing at Churches of Christ all over South Texas. He’ll sometimes stop in at the Fifth Ward Church of Christ on his way to Minute Maid Park before Sunday home games.

This part of his life isn’t known by many, and he doesn’t advertise it. I ask because he has a book on the history of the Churches of Christ sitting on the book case behind him.

He mentions his faith only occasionally. For instance, when he’s asked about not getting into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

“Doesn’t matter to me,” he said. “That’s not the most important thing in my life. I’ve got a bigger hall of fame to get to. I think you probably know what that is. That’s the one I’m shooting for.”

Star players sometimes have a tough transition into coaching and managing. Things that came easy for them don’t come so easy for many years. It’s not effort or desire. It’s talent.

“When I first started coaching, I was pretty hard on players,” Cooper said. “It had been easy for me to do some of that stuff, so it ought to be easy for them. I had to learn to back off sometimes. That’s the one change I’ve made over the last five years. I’ve been a little softer. I understand that they fail sometimes.”

The right stuff

He had trouble sleeping as spring training approached because he had waited so long for this chance and was ready to get going. These first few weeks will be easy, but as he and his players get to know one another, there could be something built that will endure a trying season.

“I see a lot of Terry Francona in him,” Wade said. “I think players will know this guy has their back. He knows the game. He has the right tools to help us win.”