How do you pitch to a guy as hot as he is?" Minnesota Twins Pitcher Jerry Koosman says, repeating a question just put to him. "You don't. I wouldn't be embarrassed to walk him. Better that than letting him get to you for a double or homer. You can call me gutless or whatever, but you just don't challenge a guy like that."
The subject of Koosman's awe steps into the lefthanded batter's box and plants his back foot hard against the chalked rear line. Then he puts his front foot at about a 45-degree angle to the back one, forming a radically open stance, points his lead foot toward the pitcher. Both knees are bent so he is in a deep crouch; his upper body is doubled over the plate. The impression is one of a man afflicted with a severe case of arthritis, but there's nothing sickly about the way the ball jumps off the bat.
As the assumer of this unorthodox stance, Milwaukee's Cecil Cooper, says, "When I'm at the plate I'm in a world of my own." That world is at least in the same galaxy as that of George Brett. While Cooper trailed Brett in average, .396-.357 at week's end, he was second to none among big-leaguers in RBIs, with 108. Cooper was also leading the American League in total bases (296), and was tied for second in the league in hits (196), fourth in slugging percentage (.539) and sixth in on-base percentage (.398).
Those are Most Valuable Player numbers in just about any season—except the Year of George Brett, a situation that has prompted well-wishers to qualify their congratulations to Cooper. "Great year. It's a shame that...," they say, or, "You know, under normal circumstances...." Such remarks have rarely been heard since another Cecil, last name Travis, hit .359 and no one noticed. He had the misfortune of doing it in 1941, the season Ted Williams hit .406.
"A guy in Kansas City told me that," Cooper says. "I guess he wanted me to know I was destined to finish second."
No, the observant fan wasn't Brett, although he and Cooper have talked numbers. "The last time we were in K.C. he came up to me and said, 'O.K., you get two hits tonight, and I'll get two," Cooper says. "He said he wasn't feeling well, so I could have the RBIs if I wanted."
Cooper thinks Brett can afford to be generous: "He's a machine. It's like he's running on eight cylinders, and I'm on six. Maybe he's a V-8 and I'm a regular 8? I want him to hit .400 if he can. It would be amazing."
Cooper, 30, has a graceful, almost regal presence. He is also unflappable, which has been particularly helpful this year, because of Brett's long shadow. And he's notably patient. "I'm always willing to talk and I'll listen to other people," he says. "I may not follow their advice, but I have to show respect by listening."
"One of the best things about him is that, although he's one of the best, he never toots his own horn," says Brewer Outfielder Dick Davis. To be sure, Cooper isn't the rah-rah type, but he and the unofficial team captain, Sal Bando, are definitely the leaders of the Brewers.
According to Bando, Cooper is phenomenal. "I've been around guys who have had fantastic years—Reggie Jackson, Dick Allen, whoever—but Cecil has had the most complete year I've ever seen," says Bando. "I call him Black Magic. Pitchers don't know what to do with him because he can make his bat do everything but talk."
And he has done it with consistency. Cooper has batted .317 or better in every month of the season and has had hitting streaks of 21, 16 and 15 games. He has had at least one hit in 82% of his games; on 19 occasions he has had three or more hits. He almost certainly will become the first Brewer to get 200 hits in a season. And all the while he has played first base with the skill that earned him a Gold Glove in 1979.
Cooper's weird batting stance is patterned after that of another hard-hitting first baseman, Rod Carew. "It's the same swing, same everything. Mine is just opened up more," Cooper says. "Before I found this one, I used to go through three or four different stances a game."
Cooper, wiry-strong at 6'2" and 190 pounds, has one edge over Carew—power; he had 21 homers at the end of last week. But until this season he never had a Carew-like average because he relied too much on his hands and wrists when he was hitting. Pitchers knew Cooper could be had by high, inside deliveries. Now he has moved an extra six inches away from the plate, enabling him to get his bat around on the pitches that were once his weakness.
Not that that explains his extraordinary season. As Cooper readily admits, when you're hot, you're lucky. "Everything has just fallen into place," he says. "There have been days when I was feeling awful. I got hits. Once I got brushed back and the ball hit my bat and rolled past the pitcher toward short. It was a perfect bunt."
Brewer Third Base Coach Frank Howard thinks Cooper is being too modest. "This is how it will be for Cecil for the next three or four years if he keeps his legs," Howard says, "You don't have to instruct him; he knows himself very well. One game he's at bat and already has two hits. He takes a fastball. Strike one. Takes another. Strike two. I'm wondering what he's doing; most guys would've jumped on those balls. The pitcher wastes one and then throws him the most wicked slider I've ever seen. Boom. Cecil drills it up the middle for a hit. I tell you, he's just a bitch to pitch to."
Cooper's talents were whetted near Brenham, Texas, 70 miles northwest of Houston. Although his father played in the Negro leagues and two brothers were sandlot stars, Cooper never paid much attention to the game. "It was something that was always around, but I never thought about it as a career," he says. "I never saw a major league game in person until I turned pro. I was just going to be a regular kid, go to college, get a job. Even when I was dratted I didn't think I would do it in baseball."
For a time, Cooper didn't. He shuttled around the Red Sox organization until finally sticking with the big club late in 1973. Boston used Cooper in a variety of roles—defensive replacement, pinch hitter, designated hitter—but he was never able to win a starting job. "In July of '761 asked Don Zimmer if I would be a starter the next year," Cooper says. "He never specifically said yes, but that was the impression I got."
He did start in 1977, but with the Brewers, who had traded for him. Although leaving Boston was "heartbreaking" for Cooper, his wife, Octavia, and their daughter, Kelly, he's grateful to the Brewers for giving him a chance to play.
The pleasure has also been the Brewers'. Since coming to Milwaukee, Cooper has been one of the mainstays of an explosive lineup. This year, four of the top five American Leaguers in total bases are Brewers, which means there's usually someone on board when Cooper comes up. And he usually comes through: his batting average with men on base this season is .376. "It's easy to get caught up in hitting here," Cooper says. "Because so many of us hit, there's no pressure to try and do it all yourself. When there's a man on, you don't say, 'I gotta do it,' but, 'I've got a chance to do it.' "
Which is how Cooper feels about chasing Brett. "So I hit .360 and don't win the batting title, well, at least the man who beat me hit around .400," he says. "That's some consolation."
The same goes for all those people offering condolences. "I don't get tired of hearing from them," Cooper says, "because I can remember when no one would come around at all."