Sox are still on Cooper’s mind

By Amalie Benjamin
Updated: June 28, 2008

HOUSTON– Cecil Cooper wanted No. 15 with the Red Sox, the one closest to the 14 worn by his good friend Jim Rice. But that wasn’t meant to be.

“I asked for 15 and I got traded,” Cooper joked Friday at Minute Maid Field.

In fact, Cooper was traded to the Brewers in December 1976, a deal that brought George Scott and Bernie Carbo back to Boston.

Now the Astros’ first-year manager, Cooper came up through the Red Sox system and played parts of six seasons with the Sox, notably the World Series year of 1975. He spent the last 11 years of his career with the Brewers. Though most of his success, including all five of his All-Star appearances, came with Milwaukee, Cooper contributed to that ’75 team.

“Oh, a little bit [of success],” Cooper said of his time in Boston. “I wish I had been able to stay there and have a lot. Those days were great, hanging out with Rice and [Carlton] Fisk and [Rick] Burleson. Juan Beniquez. Lot of special guys. I grew up with those players.

“Then all of a sudden, I got traded. It was like my world ended. You really hated that, but it turned out good for me, so I don’t complain. But it was special to say you were a Red Sox.”

There’s a reverence when Cooper speaks about Boston and Fenway Park and the Red Sox, a sense of nostalgia, but also of respect. That was where he matured as a ballplayer, and for that and other reasons, he seems to still love the place and the people.

“I’ll never forget my first impression of Fenway Park,” said Cooper, who was drafted by the Sox in 1968. “We were playing in Double A Pawtucket [the team was a Double A affiliate before it was Triple A]. About three or four guys, we got in a car and we drove to Fenway. Just walked through the stands while the game was going on. What an awesome feeling, really awesome. I’ll never forget, I think the score was like 7-4 after one inning. Wild score.

“Just kind of a special feeling of walking through there, that buzz and the fans and stuff. It’s special. I still don’t think there’s a bad seat in the house. I think that’s the best place to watch a baseball game.”

Not that Minute Maid Park is bad. Still, the Astros haven’t had it easy this year, Cooper’s first full one running the team after he took over for the fired Phil Garner during the 2007 season. The Astros fell to six games under .500 after losing to the Red Sox Friday night, 6-1.

“I think it’s been difficult because we’ve been so streaky,” said Mark Loretta, who has known Cooper through his Brewers and Astros days, and who played for the Red Sox in 2006.

“I’m not sure he anticipated the emotional roller coaster he was going to be on. That’s probably been tough on him. But he’s handled himself well. He’s a class guy.”

It has been especially rough this week, in the wake of the physical confrontation between pitcher Shawn Chacon and general manager Ed Wade, a scene Loretta acknowledged was frightening for the seven or eight guys — including Loretta — who were in the lunchroom at the time.

It hasn’t been easy, he said, “But not as rocky as people have made it out to be. It was an isolated incident. Shawn was really a popular guy in the clubhouse. You would never expect something like this would happen.”

So it hasn’t entirely been as planned for Cooper in his first foray into managing. He’s been in the front office, he’s been an agent (with Alan Nero), he’s been a bench coach, but he’d never been at the helm of a club.

“I got into this because I knew it was something I liked, and it hasn’t disappointed me,” said Cooper, who added that he never spoke with the Sox about working for them after his career.

“There have been ups and downs. That’s to be expected. It’s a lot of fun, just the challenge every day, [the media], the players, the fans. All of it has been really a great experience.”