By T. Scott Boatright
When James Cooper gave up his role as head baseball coach at Grambling State University last November, he did so hoping to be able to eventually get a chance at showing his managerial skills on the next level.
But he didn’t realize how quickly that might happen.
Cooper served as head coach at GSU from 2010 until last fall, and was named the Southwestern Athletic Conference Coach of the Year in 2010 and ’17.
But when opportunity arose, Cooper chose to take a chance while admitting that deciding to leave Grambling was one of the toughest decisions in his life.
He’s spent the first part of this season assisting the New York Yankees minor league system with baserunning and outfield instruction as the coordinator, working with the FCL (Florida Complex League) Yankees in the MLB Rookie League.
But on Monday life threw another curve ball at Cooper as he got the chance to manage the FCL Yankees as they played a doubleheader against the Philadelphia Phillies’ Rookie League Team.
And the former Houston Astros draftee picked up a hit in first “at bat” as a “pro” manager, leading his Yankees to 3-2 win in extra innings before the second game was called due to lightning in the sixth with the score tied at 1-1.
Cooper’s opportunity came after their AA affiliate’s manager took paternity leave and was replaced by the FCL Yankees manager, with Cooper being asked to replace him in the interim.
“It’s a lot like being a college head coach — more duties involved than being an assistant,” Cooper said. “Getting the plan submitted to the players and the game and operations staff, getting into contact with the bus driver because it was a road game today. You’re in charge of whether you’re going to go “in and out” or “show and go,” calling the infielder or putting in a play for a first and third defense.
“Being a baserunning coach, I was already in charge of a majority of our stolen base attempts, so that didn’t change at all. In extra innings in this league you start with a runner on second base and that was one of the tougher decisions I’ve had to make today was to not pinch run for a slower guy because I wanted to keep his bat in the lineup in case the game got extended. But it all worked out good and I got my first managerial win.”
Cooper said he didn’t have to change his coaching style moving from college to minor league ball.
“What I can tell you is that when you’re dealing with a player that’s kind of already established, including his personality and his productivity, with an established work ethic and a play he wants to execute, once he finds out you’re in it to help make him better, and believes that, then you have his undivided attention,” Cooper said.
“So my goal and my focus is to come in and be prepared, know who I’m working with and the pros and cons involved with each athlete — things they do well and things that need to be fine-tuned — and help them put together a plan and show them how to get better.”
Cooper admits that he hoped the opportunity would come, but that he didn’t expect to happen so fast, even on an interim basis.
“I didn’t expect it in my first year, but after I got in and started working with people, I did start to notice that it feels like they might be working to fast-track me up,” Cooper said. “So hopefully I’ll get to move up higher and maybe even eventually get to the Big League. Certain meetings I’ve been invited to and with some conversations I’ve had with certain people since I’ve been in the (organization), I can tell that that’s probably something they’re thinking about for the future. I just have to go out there and prove myself.
“And I got that first chance today. And I’ll keep riding this chance and hopefully one day soon I can start doing it on a more permanent basis.”
College Baseball Hall of Fame coach Wilbert Ellis was head coach at Grambling when Cooper was a star outfielder for the G-Men and said he was thrilled to see not only get the opportunity to manage on the Rookie Level but to see him win his first game doing so.
“I’ve sent a bunch of players to the Big Leagues, but I’ve never had a manager move up,” Ellis said. “This is real exciting for not only Grambling State University, but maybe more it’s exciting for young Black baseball players to see one of their own receive this kind of opportunity. He’s proving what can be done if you work hard.
“It’s no secret that they’re aren’t as many Black youth involved in baseball as there should be, and what ‘Coop’ is showing those potential players is that anything is possible, regardless of race. All it takes is basic talent, hard work and dedication. The Yankees are a winning organization from top to bottom and for ‘Coop’ to get this chance shows what they think of him, and he’s making the most of it. That’s an exciting thing.”
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