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Support at gate vital to White Sox’ rebuild, Don Cooper says

Pitching coach Don Cooper (right) and bullpen coach Curt Hasler watch Michael Kopech warm up before the White Sox game against the Minnesota Twins on Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018, in Chicago. (AP)

Pitching coach Don Cooper was there when the White Sox won it all in 2005, so he knows firsthand what it’s like when the ballpark is jumping. He knows, too, how a home crowd can motivate and energize a team.

Cooper was reminded of it Aug. 21, when top pitching prospect Michael Kopech made his much-anticipated major-league debut at Guaranteed Rate Field. Cooper was there in the bullpen, where fans gathered early to watch the 22-year-old right-hander warm up.

“I’ve heard the cheers when the guy goes from the bullpen to the dugout before,’’ Cooper said, “but when the guy bent over to touch his toes, there was a cheer. Anything he did was a cheer. Then he went on the [bullpen] mound, and he threw a couple to the catcher standing up, and there were ‘oohs and aahs.’ The excitement it spurred to bring the fans out, the reaction to it was great to see. And we’re all hoping the ballpark continues to have that life and energy as we forge ahead in our rebuild.’’

In a rebuilding year in which the Sox were on pace for 100 losses before an uptick in August, that kind of buzz in the park when Kopech pitched, if only for two innings, was as refreshing as the rain that shortened his start. It was a reminder of how things used to be and how they might be if the rebuild bears postseason fruit.

Fans were into every pitch, rising to their feet when Kopech got two strikes on a hitter.

“It was exciting to see how invested the fans were tonight,’’ Kopech said afterward. “A standing ovation every time I had two strikes, I didn’t expect that. It made me feel like I was in a big-time game.’’

Players love atmosphere. To a man, they say they love playing in front of large crowds, home or away.

Shortstop Tim Anderson says small crowds “let you know who’s with you even when you’re losing.” But more is better.

“When it’s a packed house, it’s easy to go out and play in front of those fans because the energy is already set in place from them,’’ Anderson said.

Ranking 27th of 30 teams in attendance with 19,152 fans per game (ahead of Oakland, Tampa Bay and Miami), the Sox drew 23,133 for the Kopech game, about 8,000 more than they would’ve drawn for a typical weeknight game against the Twins. When Kopech faces the Red Sox, on a Friday night this weekend, a bigger crowd is expected.

And welcome. And appreciated.

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“It’s vital for us to pick up all this talent, but it’s vital to have support from our fan base,’’ Cooper said. “Players need the support. I know from the years we were winning that the fan attendance creates an electric vibe that makes the players want to elevate their focus, their commitment, their execution, their game. And it makes for a tremendous atmosphere. So the support of our fan base is critical to a team in a rebuild.

“Having crowds at our home park is the whole theory behind having a home-field advantage. There’s too many nights when there are more Boston fans, more Yankees fans, Cubs fans than our own. So we’re hoping that changes.’’

The Sox traded Chris Sale for Kopech, Yoan Moncada, Luis Basabe and Victor Diaz because, as good as he was, they didn’t win with him.

“Sale was a Hall of Famer in the making, one of the best pitchers in baseball in your backyard, but we didn’t have people coming out to support the team or him,’’ Cooper said. “I scratch my head.’’

Sox fans have in large part supported the rebuild. Cooper said he saw it at SoxFest. He hopes to see it at the gate, too, as he did for Kopech.

“There have been too many times over the years where I haven’t seen that support,’’ Cooper said. “It’s just extremely nice to see. And I guess it took Michael to bring it out.’’