Cecil Cooper

The Astros skipper on life in baseball.

June 2009By Comments

Evan Smith: We’re talking at a moment when the Astros are 4 and 9—the second-worst record in baseball. I’m sure you get tired of people asking you why the team isn’t any better, but why isn’t the team any better?

Cecil Cooper: We’re not hitting. We have a lot of situations in which we’re just not scoring runs—when we have leads of  1-0, 2-0, 2-1, we’ve not been able to get a big base hit to open those games up. In thirteen games, I can probably look back and only find one instance where we did that.

ES: That’s not something that you, as the manager, can necessarily affect. You can’t force people to hit.

CC: People are going to hit, or they’re not going to hit. Some guys are going to have a better season than they had before, and some aren’t. There’s not a whole lot I can do except put the right players in the right positions and expect them to perform.

ES: Are the right players not performing? Or maybe you don’t have the right players.

CC: I have the right players, but this isn’t the way they should be. This isn’t what they’re capable of.

ES: In recent years pitching has been a problem for the Astros, but you haven’t mentioned it as an issue.

CC: I think our pitchers have done a better-than-average job. They’re actually throwing really well over the last six or seven games. But they haven’t gotten the run support they’ve needed.

ES: You’ve been the manager since Phil Garner departed, near the end of the 2007 season. Now that you have almost two years under your belt, how are you enjoying the job?

CC: It’s been a wonderful experience. It’s something that I would recommend to most players when they retire, because it’s pretty challenging. But having had some success as a player, I also find it to be a little bit frustrating.

ES: Talk about why that is.

CC: If you’ve had success at that level, you think everyone should have success at that level. You have to learn how to adjust your thinking to deal with other people’s failures.

ES: When you were a player, you were more in control of your performance. When you’re the manager, as you said earlier, your performance depends on other people doing their jobs.

CC: Exactly. You’re much more focused on the total concept as opposed to the individual concept. You can only do what you can do from an individual standpoint, but as a manager, you’re focused on the bigger picture, and you have to keep your mind focused on that.

ES: How do you know how to think like a manager?

CC: It comes from your experiences as a player and, I think, your experiences in dealing with people. Because when it comes down to it, that’s what you are doing: You’re dealing with people and egos and personalities, and you have to be able to deal with people. If you’re not a good people person, it’s going to be more difficult, because you have 25 different player personalities and 8 to 10 staff personalities. You deal with them on a daily basis, along with 5 or 6 front-office personalities.

ES: So the most important part of the job isn’t knowledge of baseball or strategic thinking?

CC: You need those things as well. But the more difficult part is dealing with the personalities—and in baseball it’s a long, tedious grind. If I were a football coach and only had to deal with my players for three months . . .

ES: Which managers did you learn the most from?

CC: My first regular big-league manager in Boston was a guy named Darrell Johnson. His personality was a lot like mine—he had a very quiet and calming presence—yet he was good with people. I had two guys with Milwaukee who were a lot like that. One was Harvey Kuenn. The other guy I really respected and picked up a lot of things from was George Bamberger. He was a good pitching coach before he became a manager. He had tremendous people skills.

ES: When you were a player, did you think to yourself, “I want to be a manager one day”?

CC: No.

ES: Because your career seems to have taken an interesting path. After your time as a player came to an end, you didn’t go into coaching right away—you became an agent.

CC: I became an agent out of necessity. When I was released, in the winter of 1987, it was unexpected. I hadn’t made any plans. Once reality set in, I thought, “Well, what am I going to do?” My agent and I talked—we were good friends—and he said, “Why don’t you come work for me and learn the business?” I had always done most of the work on my own contracts from the standpoint of dealing with numbers and that kind of stuff, so I said, “Okay, I’ll give it a shot.” I did it for a year to see if I liked it, and I kind of got into it.

ES: And you ended up spending eight years doing it. Did you represent any players I would have heard of?

CC: Some players who had good careers and some big names. Randy Johnson was one of the current players I represented. Wade Boggs was a client. Joe Girardi, now the manager of the Yankees, was a client.

ES: What did you learn about the game as an agent?

CC: I dealt primarily with younger players, and I tried to prepare them for their steps up the ladder of success. And I learned that people are people, that players are people. A lot of folks don’t look at it that way, but I saw the human side—not the baseball stuff but the personal stuff.

ES: If being an agent was such a positive experience, why did you go back into baseball?

CC: I had a very strong relationship with Wendy Selig-Prieb, who at the time was running the Milwaukee Brewers. She began to recruit me—you know, I was a pretty popular player. She always talked to me about coming back to the organization, and we both thought that running the minor league farm system was a good place to start. I did it for three years, and it is by far the most difficult job in baseball.

ES: Why?

CC: Because you’re in control of seven or eight teams and all the affiliates—the budgets, the staff, the players, the contracts—whereas a general manager at the major league level is primarily responsible for the major league club.

ES: So once you went through that you thought to yourself, “Maybe I want to get back to actual baseball.”

CC: As the farm director, I was on the field a lot—I wouldn’t get into uniform, but I would evaluate my instructors. All of a sudden the drive hit me to get back. Actually, I wanted to learn about the scouting side of the game, because I had never done that, so after three years as farm director I said that I would like to try to scout but wanted to stay close to home [in Texas]. I scouted the Southern region of the United States—I would go and scout the Texas Rangers when we would play there, and I would scout the Astros, and I would go see a couple of the triple-A and double-A teams in the area. I enjoyed it thoroughly. But in the process of all that, I happened to be in Milwaukee to report on what I had seen and done, and they needed a temporary coach.

ES: From there it was a short walk to managing in the minor leagues.

CC: I liked being a coach and being on the bench and being part of a major league team, so I thought to myself, “Why not go manage a little bit and get some of that experience and see where it leads?”

ES: It led to your being recruited to coach for the Astros.

CC: I guess you could say recruited. One of my best friends happened to be Phil Garner. I was the farm director in Milwaukee while he was a manager in Milwaukee.

ES: Was it difficult for you to take over for him once he was let go? It must have been bittersweet to get your shot that way.

CC: It definitely was—no question about it. I learned from him at all levels. He was a tremendous baseball person, with great passion. I still do some of the things that he did.

ES: Did you feel equipped on day one to manage the Astros?

CC: In my mind, yes. Was I? Maybe not. But I thought I was. You have to be confident that you can do a job. There were probably some things that I had never experienced, but I felt capable of handling them.

ES: What’s it like to work for an owner with high expectations? Drayton McLane is no shrinking violet.

CC: He is a great guy to deal with—the most positive guy you ever want to be around. Every time I see him, he’s up, and that helps me. The only thing he wants to do is win.

ES: Is there anything about being in Houston that makes the experience of managing different from what it would be someplace else?

CC: It’s a little more difficult when you’re home. And this is my home—I grew up not far from here. If I was in L.A.—well, I don’t have a lot of family or close friends in that area, so they wouldn’t have to deal with the things that I deal with. Because let’s face it, when the team doesn’t play well, there’s always negative criticism. Everybody is subjected to it. At home my relatives, my friends, and the people I grew up around have to experience it. It’s not so pleasant to hear the things others might say about me.

ES: Let’s talk about the game today versus what it was like when you played. How is it the same and how is it different?

CC: I won’t even say that it’s the same. I think it’s different. Not so much the game itself  but the people who play it. I’m not saying that they don’t perform at the same level, but the mentality is different than what it used to be.

ES: What were they like before?

CC: Their focus was more on the game than it is today. Then, it was about doing all the little things. Now it’s about home runs and the numbers.

ES: Are your players as committed to winning as you were yourself back then?

CC: I think they are. We’ve got some pretty good guys in our locker room. We have a lot of throwback, old-school kind of players.

ES: Like who?

CC: Doug Brocail. Totally throwback, old-school. Darin Erstad. Old-school kind of guy.

ES: Would Cecil Cooper the manager have liked to manage Cecil Cooper the player?

CC: Probably not. I was a totally different guy. I didn’t like to talk to anyone. I just wanted to play.

ES: Over seventeen seasons, you had a batting average of nearly .300, 241 home runs, 1,125 RBIs—a solid performance, though everyone has a list of things he wishes had gone differently. Looking back, anything you’d change?

CC: I wouldn’t necessarily say that. I had a great career. I played on All-Star teams—

ES: Five times.

CC: —and I got a chance to play in the World Series twice. Most people don’t get to play in one. As a little country boy from Independence, Texas, I was thrilled by that. The one thing that I didn’t do, that I would have liked to do if I had played some more years, was to have gotten three thousand hits.

ES: You were only about eight hundred away. More than two thousand hits is still pretty remarkable.

CC: Yeah, but three thousand is the benchmark. When you look back on guys who had great careers, that’s what you talk about.

ES: Another undeniable accomplishment is the fact that you’re the first African American manager of the Astros. Given the historically low number of African American managers in baseball, I wonder if this is an issue for you. Do you self-identify as an African American manager or as a manager who happens to be African American?

CC: A manager who happens to be African American. But I don’t really think about it. I know that I have to make sure I do a good job, the best job I can, so that there are more opportunities for other African Americans. I go out and try to be the best representative of this organization that I can be. If people’s lives are improved by it, great.

ES: You mentioned that you were born in Independence. I’m guessing that’s a smaller town than Brenham, where you went to high school.

CC: Smaller than Webb, Mississippi!

ES: Tell me about your family.

CC: There were seven boys and six girls. Our parents were farmers—you know, country folks.

ES: No baseball players in your family other than you?

CC: I had two brothers who played for the Indianapolis Clowns [of the Negro League] in the sixties—traveling, barnstorming, that kind of thing.

ES: I know you played on two state championship teams in high school, but did you start out at an early age thinking you wanted to play pro ball?

CC: No professional career or anything. I never thought of that stuff. I was just playing.

ES: What did you imagine you would do when you graduated?

CC: My plan was to go to college. The big thing when I grew up was to become a teacher. That was the mission.

ES: You did go to college for a little while, didn’t you? To Blinn College and then to Prairie View A&M?

CC: Yes, I did. But I had been drafted out of  high school by the Red Sox. I went to school every winter for, I don’t know, five or six years, until it got to the point where baseball ran into late September or October and I couldn’t go anywhere.

ES: Time to make a choice.

CC: At that point I was in the major leagues and things were happening. I just kind of put everything else on the back burner. That was forty years ago.

ES: It’s been a remarkable life.

CC: You say that, but I think it was an ordinary life. I’ve been blessed, and I’m very fortunate, but I still don’t look at it as exciting or wonderful in the way everyone else does.

ES: Anything left that you want to do in the game?

CC: I’d like to participate in a World Series as a manager, and I’d like to win. That’s what I want. When I do that, I can ride off into the sunset.

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