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Nick Cafardo | Baseball notes

A bench mark for Cooper

Astros manager hasn't forgotten his Sox roots

Email|Print| Text size + By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / February 24, 2008

Dennis Liborio was a Red Sox clubhouse worker in the early 1970s, and he remembers the request he received from clubhouse manager Don Fitzpatrick to "make sure you bring a helmet for the new kid" right before a spring training road trip. That "new kid" was Cecil Cooper.

Liborio went on to become the Houston Astros clubhouse manager - for 28 years - and now his boss is none other than Cooper, who was appointed as interim manager of the Astros last Aug. 27, replacing Phil Garner, who was fired. The interim label was removed on Sept. 28.

Cooper, 58, is thus the first African-American player who came up through the Red Sox system and went on to manage in the majors. That is significant for an organization that once was considered racist by some and didn't employ an African-American player until 1959, when Pumpsie Green was called up from the minors.

Cooper cut his teeth in the Red Sox organization but was traded at age 26 before the 1977 season to the Milwaukee Brewers for George Scott and Bernie Carbo just before he blossomed as one of the game's pure hitters.

He never forgot Jackie Moore, his first manager at Jamestown, N.Y., the Red Sox' rookie league team at the time. He named Moore his bench coach in Houston. The man he succeeded at Triple A Indianapolis, managing in the Brewers organization, was former Sox utilityman Ed Romero, now Cooper's third base coach. He never forgot Dick Berardino, Moore's coach at Jamestown, or Eddie Popowski or Don Locke, who made first base more natural to him, or Johnny Pesky, who worked endlessly with him on fielding.

"They were good to me," Cooper recalled of the Red Sox brass. "I was so mad when they traded me. I wanted to stay, but they were looking for better defense at first base and I was still emerging as a first baseman.

"I would have loved to have spent my career there. Loved the guys I came up with - Jimmy [Rice], Freddy Lynn, Ben Oglivie, Roger Moret. But things worked out. I became a pretty good ballplayer in Milwaukee."

Rice remains one of his best friends. Don't get Cooper going on why Rice isn't in the Hall of Fame.

"If he doesn't get in next year, I'm going to have some things to say," Cooper said. "People don't understand what a feared, dominant hitter he was. I feel very strongly about this."

Cooper feels strongly about a lot of things, including taking his big chance and turning it into a success. Cooper, who has been a player, an agent, a coach, a minor league manager, a major league coach, and a major league manager, has waited a while for this chance, but, he said, "not as long as a lot of other people I know in this game."

Failure does not appear to be an option for Cooper, nor for owner Drayton McLane, who greeted this reporter with, "We're going to win the world championship." That may be the expectation, but McLane doesn't have a world championship-caliber roster. Far from it.

"Big boss has made it perfectly clear he wants to win right now," Cooper said. "This is not a rebuilding program. We feel we have the talent to win. That's what I told the guys when I met with them. I said, 'You need to do what you need to do and I need to do what I need to do and do it now. Now. Now. Now. Not later.'

"We can't wait. There's pressure on all of us. Here I am a first-time manager, but I have to win."

Cooper might have an unstable situation with the team's primary offseason acquisition, Miguel Tejada, possibly facing perjury charges from the US Department of Justice, which is conducting an investigation as to whether Tejada lied to the House Oversight and Reform Committee in a deposition in 2005.

On the first day of camp, promising outfielder Hunter Pence walked through a glass door at his apartment, cutting himself, and will miss a week.

Cooper seemed unfazed.

What do his players think of him?

"The one thing you always watch when a coach gets a manager's job is, does he change?" said Astros second baseman Mark Loretta. "In Coop's case, he didn't change one bit, and I think that the guys really appreciate that."

"I believe you need to get your team on the right page, get out of the way, and let them play," Cooper said. "You have to have a firm hand. That, I believe in. I don't want guys running haywire, and you can't let them run over you. There'll be rules. The strictest of all will be what everybody should abide by: Be on time. Be professional and do it the right way. Part of my big spiel to them was play right, practice right, and they won't have any issues with me."

Cooper expects to be under scrutiny because he's African-American, but that's not an issue to him. "Not in my mind," he said. "Might be from the outside and from other people. Not me. I'm the first one for this franchise and it's a visible franchise. I feel like I'm a baseball person. That's what I am."

Catching up with an old hand

A few questions for former Red Sox catcher Javy Lopez, resuming his career as a nonroster player in Atlanta, where he had his best seasons.

Rejuvenated here?

JL: "Totally. I feel great physically, mentally, happy to be back in baseball first and happy to be back with the Braves, where I think I belong."

What happened in those few weeks with the Red Sox in 2006?

JL: "Before I got traded there, I didn't have enough catching time in Baltimore. I'd only played about 11 or 12 games behind the plate. I didn't catch one game in spring training that year. The whole year I was frustrated because the Orioles decided to go with Ramon Hernandez. They told me I was going to play first base, but I wound up DHing the whole time. So I was frustrated and I was totally unprepared to catch. I only caught Rodrigo Lopez. So I went to Boston and all of a sudden I was catching a lot, trying to get to know a totally different pitching staff. It just caught me off-guard. At the same time, when I got there, the team had lost four in a row. It was going downhill at that time. That made it worse that I got traded there at that time."

Were you surprised they even traded for you?

JL: "I didn't expect it. Jason Varitek was hurt. I hadn't caught all year and I was expected to catch. It was just a tough situation that I never felt comfortable with."

Were you relieved that the Red Sox cut you?

JL: "I was glad that once Varitek came back that they let me go. I just wasn't going to play anymore and they had [Doug] Mirabelli, who had been catching and knew the pitching staff and he was a better option for them. So I was happy to move on and put that whole year behind."

What have you done to get back to being a full-time catcher?

JL: "I've done all kinds of agility drills this offseason. I have my quickness back. As you get older, you lose that speed. You feel slow. I feel like I'm quick again. I feel like I can catch and throw and do the things a catcher needs to do."

Trying to re-create the magic again with Tom Glavine and John Smoltz?

JL: "Sure, why not? No reason we can't. I know those guys. I know what they throw and when. They haven't changed much."

The Great Debate

Will testimony be telling in Pettitte's performance?

Will Andy Pettitte be able to deal with the fallout from his testimony about his human growth hormone use and Roger Clemens? We asked Pettitte's former catcher in Houston, Brad Ausmus, and Phillies pitcher Tom Gordon.

AUSMUS: "There's no doubt that his testimony in naming Roger will tear him up because he and Roger are so close and such good friends. But on the mound, he's one of the fiercest competitors you'll ever see. He won't let anyone down when he's on the mound, and whatever he might be dealing with off the field, that won't affect him on it."

GORDON: "I think when you have off-field problems - and we've all had them to some degree - the thing you do as teammates is rally around that guy. I don't know Andy personally, but I've been around enough of his teammates with the Yankees to know of him. They always told me what a great person he was, and I've always believed that good things happen to good people. With that support, he's going to be able to head to the mound free of that burden."

Etc.

Touching the bases
Apropos of nothing: 1. When was the last time you heard someone use the word "misremember" (yes, it is a word)? Thanks, Roger; 2. Rafael Palmeiro, where are you and why haven't we heard from you?; 3. Wow. Bret Boone trying to make the Nationals. Here are the most home runs by second basemen: Jeff Kent 339, Ryne Sandberg 277, Joe Morgan 262, Boone 251, Lou Whitaker 239, Craig Biggio 236; 4. Joe Girardi is making Yankees players work harder in camp than Joe Torre did; 5. Teams have stayed away from Sammy Sosa, who does not appear in the Mitchell Report and is not linked to any steroid investigations.

Bits and pieces from camps:
RED SOX/YANKEES: Hank Steinbrenner touched a nerve with Sox chief operating officer Larry Lucchino with comments to the New York Post, in which he implied strongly that there were Red Sox players on performance-enhancing drugs. Asked how bad fans in Boston might react to Andy Pettitte, Steinbrenner said, "I don't think they would want to be hollering too loud at Andy up in Fenway. They had plenty of players doing this stuff, too. It's just that those players weren't mentioned in the Mitchell Report." Asked about the comments, Lucchino responded in an e-mail, "It serves no purpose at this point to comment on Senator Mitchell's Report and his major contributions to Baseball, or on Mr. Steinbrenner's gratuitous and reckless accusations. So, no comment."

YANKEES: Johnny Damon feels a new pride after last season when he contemplated retirement and walking away from millions. "I thought about retiring," he said. "I was missing my kids and their activities. It was just a strange time when I was just feeling down about things, but I'm over that. I'm excited about what's ahead here. We have a great young pitching staff. Lot of great arms around here and we have the lineup to support that. I wouldn't rule the Yankees out."

BRAVES: Never forget what Greg Maddux once said about playing for the Braves: "It was the best golf of my life." Maddux is out in San Diego now, where we're sure the golf isn't too bad. But last week when I visited the Braves, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz were heading out on one of those golf outings, this one outside the Disney area. "The thing about Smoltzie," said Maddux, "he knows all the best places." There's also a thing about that clubhouse now, where Glavine, Smoltz, Chipper Jones, Mark Teixeira, and Jeff Francoeur all believe they're going to surprise anyone who thinks the Mets or Phillies have the division locked down . . . Teixeira is a fine player, and these stats, courtesy of Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News, don't tell a complete story, but it's interesting nonetheless that when Teixeira has been out of the lineup, his teams do better than when he plays. The Rangers went 52-43 when Teixeira was on the DL in 2004 and 2007 and 342-373 with him. The Braves were 29-27 after he got there and 55-51 without him.

ASTROS: Nothing against Biggio, who had a spectacular 20-year career with the Astros, but for the past two or three years, he was a statue at second base. Free agent Kaz Matsui has replaced him, and already the Astros feel they've improved their defense tremendously. Said one player, "I think we're going to get to a lot of balls that were scooting through the infield. Everyone loved Craig, but when you have a faster, quicker player, it can save you a key hit or two." . . . Brad Ausmus said that while this is his last year with the Astros, it's not necessarily his last year in the majors. Could a Red Sox uniform (either as a coach, manager, or player) be in his future? Ausmus has a house on the Cape.

BLUE JAYS: The humble Roy Halladay had a heavy heart last week with the passing of the scout who signed him, Bus Campbell, who worked with Halladay since he was 14 years old. "He was like a father to me," said Halladay. "Taught me so much about the game and about life." I asked Halladay whether there was something different about his approach this year. "I actually started it toward the end of last year, where I back off during the week if I've had a high pitch count," he said. "I just won't do as much in between. I still want to go deep into games and finish them off."

RAYS: We want to know whether Carlos Peña is for real. Can he do it (46 homers and 121 RBIs in 2007) again? "Last year was a magical year, no doubt about it," he said. "A year that I will have as a source of energy, a source of confidence, and it definitely was a lot of fun. But this year there is a blank canvas in front of me, and I intend to paint a beautiful picture." That quote speaks well of Haverhill, where he grew up, and Northeastern University, which he attended.

METS/PHILLIES: No doubt Willie Randolph will use last season's collapse as a rallying cry for the Mets. Not that he needs to. With Johan Santana aboard, the Mets should be the prohibitive favorites. Well, not in the eyes of Phillies setup man Tom Gordon, who said, "Santana is the best pitcher I've seen in the game, and they have reason to be excited. But look around this team. We're shooting for the stars here. We've got the offense, the pitching, and I think we're going to be quite a team. By the time we've played 162 games, you're going to be saying good things about the Phillies."

A few quick things . . .
Having been to the Weston, Fla., house where Jose Canseco supposedly had the barbecue in 1998 that Brian McNamee attended and where McNamee said Roger Clemens first talked about steroids, I can see where it could be hard to find someone because of the layout and expanse of the place. Clemens contends he wasn't there. But if there's a photo linking Clemens to the party, then why is Canseco going out of his way to protect Clemens and fibbing? . . . Happy 31st birthday, Bronson Arroyo; happy 34th, Mike Lowell; and happy 48th, Nick Esasky.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com

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