The two men in the Mercedes 380 SLC were having an upwardly mobile conversation as they pulled into the parking lot at Milwaukee's County Stadium. "I know where I can get a Rolls-Royce for $27,000," said Jim Rice, 30, the Boston Red Sox slugger. "Sure," said Cecil Cooper, 33, the Milwaukee Brewer slugger, as he steered into a reserved parking space. "But," Rice continued, "if I get it, my wife will be so mad at me I'll have to move in with you." "You're always welcome," Cooper said, laughing. "But then I get to drive the Rolls'." Rice gave him a playful nudge and the two ballplayers, close friends since their days in the Red Sox farm system, went off to play against each other in a recent doubleheader, which Cooper's team would sweep.
Rice and Cooper have much in common besides their Red Sox heritage. Both are country boys—Rice from Anderson, S.C. and Cooper from Independence, Texas—who often give the impression that they would rather be on a front porch swatting flies than in a ball park hitting them. Both are among the finest hitters of their generation. Cooper's average for his 10 seasons is .308; Rice's for nine seasons is .304. Both have played in All-Star Games. Both more than earn their multimillion-dollar long-term contracts. But Rice is by far the better known of the two. Cooper's bearded face and balding head are known only to family and friends. Rice has won the American League's Most Valuable Player award; Cooper, despite some imposing numbers, is generally overlooked in the voting. "Unsung" could easily be his first name. "Maybe," he says without a trace of wistfulness, "I'm the Lou Gehrig of my time, always in the shadow of someone else. He's a pretty good role model, though."
Like Gehrig, Cooper shines in the shadows. A perfectionist who isn't entirely content unless he's hitting around .320, Cooper must now reluctantly admit that he's having quite a year. After a slow start that had him batting only .230 on May 17, he is among the league leaders, as he usually is, in almost every major batting category. At week's end, he was hitting .306 with 35 doubles, 27 homers, 91 runs scored and 113 runs batted in (one behind Rice). Significantly, his revival has coincided with his team's. When Cooper was hitting .270, the defending American League-champion Brewers were in last place in the American League East. His splurge carried them into first place on Aug. 17, and though they trailed Baltimore by 7½ games on Sunday, they still have seven games to play against the Orioles.
Cooper is the man who puts the head on the Blue Crew. "They have such a good lineup up and down." says Kansas City Manager Dick Howser, "but he's where it starts. When Cooper started to move, the Brewers moved." White Sox catcher and former Red Sox teammate Carlton Fisk says, "He's the kind of guy you build a club around." and, adds Brewer executive and part-time coach, Sal Bando, "He's the best hitter in baseball."
If he isn't, he's awfully close. After bouncing about the Red Sox farm system for the better part of six years and then playing only part-time on the parent club for another three years, Cooper has become a superstar since being traded to Milwaukee before the 1977 season. In his almost seven years as a Brewer he has hit .316 and averaged 22 homers and 93 RBIs, which isn't bad considering he lost much of one season, 1981, to the players' strike and another, 1978, to a broken leg. Cooper's benchmark season was 1980, when he hit .352 with 25 homers and 122 RBIs. Cooper was actually disappointed when he hit "only" .313 last year, with 32 homers and 121 RBIs, and he was dismayed by his slow start this year. He's also concerned that he's pulling the ball too much, that he has been seduced this year by his proliferating homers. "I'm not being myself," he says. "I'm using only half the ball park. If I'd done anything the first six weeks, I'd be ahead of '80. That was when everything went perfectly. Even if I did something wrong, it came out right."
Those 1980 figures were certainly of MVP quality, and so were last year's. Alas, '80 was the year George Brett hit .390, and '82 belonged to Cooper's teammate, Shortstop Robin Yount, who hit for average (.331) and power (29 homers). "It's not often a guy hits .390," he says, modestly deflecting arguments of his own value. "And how many times does a shortstop lead the league in slugging percentage." Cooper finished only fifth in the MVP voting both years, and anticipates that history will repeat itself this season. "Look at the seasons Dan Quisenberry and Wade Boggs are having," he says. "One thing is certain, though. I won't lose any sleep if I don't get the award."
All too true. Of all the stars in the game today—and Cooper is certainly among the most celestial—he courts attention less than any of them. He is an intensely private man who, though active in Milwaukee community affairs—he won baseball's Roberto Clemente Award for humanitarianism last year—prefers to do his job at the ball park and then rush home to his wife, Octavia, and their 5-year-old daughter, Kelly. Although he's also among baseball's most articulate players, he suffers from a major league case of stage fright that precludes his speaking at banquets. "I just seem to lock up," he says. "It's not that I'm scared. After all, I play in front of 50,000 people and that doesn't bother me. And I can certainly handle smaller groups. I remember once while I was with the Red Sox I had to get up in front of about 500 people at a banquet. I only got through my first three or four lines, then I couldn't get any more out. The lady who introduced me cleaned it up for me."
Earlier this season Cooper wasn't even talking to the media, though unlike other self-imposed silencers, he has nothing against the press. "I just didn't feel I had anything to say," he explains. "I was hitting around .250 and I guess some of the reporters thought I was being a hard and moody guy, but I wouldn't say I'm moody. You have to get to know me. I might walk into a room and be thinking about all kinds of things. There are other things—like home and family—in this world besides hitting sliders."
Cooper's effortless style occasionally obscures his considerable fielding prowess. He has great range and an arm so strong that he'll often throw to another base to catch a lead runner. He is so good at digging balls out of the dirt that, as Yount says, "We're never afraid to just let it fly." And he may be the best stretching first baseman since Willie McCovey. "He gets out there a good two feet farther than other first basemen," says Second Baseman Jim Gantner. "I've actually seen him do the splits."
The key to Cooper's game is relaxation. He does breathing exercises before each time at bat. At the plate he lazily aims his bat at the pitcher before assuming his Rod Carew-like, wide-open, left-handed, crouching stance. "I'm pointing the bat to the zone of the pitcher's delivery," he says. "I'm trying to get my mind and my eyes focused on that certain point." Again like Carew, Cooper will alter his stance from pitch to pitch, changing the positions of his hands and feet according to the situation. "The pitcher is constantly making adjustments, so you should, too," he says.