GLENDALE, Ariz. — Pitching coach Don Cooper has spent 30 years in the White Sox organization, and at age 62, one begins to wonder how many more are on his horizon.
But Cooper has as much bounce and life in his step preparing a pitching staff for a rebuilding season — a term his competitive juices don’t allow him to utter easily — as he ever has. And he is not exactly counting down the days to the end of his career.
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“As long as I’m physically able to do it,’’ said Cooper, taking a short break from a busy Friday on the back fields at Camelback Ranch, the Sox’ spring-training facility. “I still have another daughter to put through college [and a son in college now]. Listen, it’s not like I’m out cracking concrete. I don’t have to do a lot of physical. As long as I’m healthy, I’d like to do this as long as they’ll have me.’’
Cooper has been on staff longer than any Sox coach. After spending 15 years in the Sox minor-league system, he has held down the pitching coach spot since getting hired during the 2002 season and generally is regarded as one of baseball’s best. Winning the World Series in 2005 and wanting another drives him, but it seems his motivation for going to work every day is helping pitchers improve, whether they are All-Stars Mark Buehrle or Chris Sale, can’t-miss prospects like Michael Kopech or a struggling veteran trying to resurrect a career.
In any case, Cooper says a rebuild is always in place because teaching is about building up pitchers no matter how well they’re succeeding.
“I enjoy it. It’s the same,’’ Cooper said. “I’m excited for every spring. I can’t wait to see them throw on the side. Then I can’t wait for live batting practice. Then I can’t wait for the [Cactus League] games to start because now you’re really going to see. Now the evaluations begin.”
Coaching “is my passion. I love the challenge,’’ he said.
“I love being part of young people’s lives helping them achieve the dreams they’re dreaming about. That’s what I’m into.’’
With a likely starting rotation of veterans James Shields and Miguel Gonzalez and youngsters Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Carson Fulmer, it seems a bit much to expect the Sox to compete in 2018. And they may not be ready in 2019.
But “we’re coming to the park with the purpose of winning the game that night,’’ Cooper said. “We did last year [with a 67-95 team], and we’re going to do the same thing this year. We’re also going to realize that there are things we’re working on to get better, and we’re going to have patience.’’
Cooper has served under managers Jerry Manuel, Ozzie Guillen, Robin Ventura and Rick Renteria. He took a liking to Renteria when Renteria served as a bench coach in 2016, and his respect grew after watching him manage last season.
“I love Ricky,’’ Cooper said. “He’s the man who is our leader taking us through this time to get to where we want to go and take us all the way. Rick is a tremendous communicator in two languages, very organized, very knowledgeable, and fun on top of it. And he’s a good, solid man, too.
“He sets the tone. Last year we played hard for nine innings, ran everything out, and the effort was always there. And if it’s not, they’ll be sitting next to us on the bench.’’
Cooper’s tough-love approach with pitchers has served him well, but through a sometimes edgy demeanor comes a message that is always positive and encouraging.
Pitchers young and old appreciate that.
“Aw, Coop is awesome,” said Shields, 36. “He’s a one-of-a-kind, but I love him. He’s a great pitching coach — the communication is always there every day. We have fun with each other, and we respect each other.’’
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