How do you pitch to a guy as hot as he is?" Minnesota Twins Pitcher Jerry Koosman says, repeating a question just put to him. "You don't. I wouldn't be embarrassed to walk him. Better that than letting him get to you for a double or homer. You can call me gutless or whatever, but you just don't challenge a guy like that."
The subject of Koosman's awe steps into the lefthanded batter's box and plants his back foot hard against the chalked rear line. Then he puts his front foot at about a 45-degree angle to the back one, forming a radically open stance, points his lead foot toward the pitcher. Both knees are bent so he is in a deep crouch; his upper body is doubled over the plate. The impression is one of a man afflicted with a severe case of arthritis, but there's nothing sickly about the way the ball jumps off the bat.
As the assumer of this unorthodox stance, Milwaukee's Cecil Cooper, says, "When I'm at the plate I'm in a world of my own." That world is at least in the same galaxy as that of George Brett. While Cooper trailed Brett in average, .396-.357 at week's end, he was second to none among big-leaguers in RBIs, with 108. Cooper was also leading the American League in total bases (296), and was tied for second in the league in hits (196), fourth in slugging percentage (.539) and sixth in on-base percentage (.398).
Those are Most Valuable Player numbers in just about any season—except the Year of George Brett, a situation that has prompted well-wishers to qualify their congratulations to Cooper. "Great year. It's a shame that...," they say, or, "You know, under normal circumstances...." Such remarks have rarely been heard since another Cecil, last name Travis, hit .359 and no one noticed. He had the misfortune of doing it in 1941, the season Ted Williams hit .406.
"A guy in Kansas City told me that," Cooper says. "I guess he wanted me to know I was destined to finish second."
No, the observant fan wasn't Brett, although he and Cooper have talked numbers. "The last time we were in K.C. he came up to me and said, 'O.K., you get two hits tonight, and I'll get two," Cooper says. "He said he wasn't feeling well, so I could have the RBIs if I wanted."
Cooper thinks Brett can afford to be generous: "He's a machine. It's like he's running on eight cylinders, and I'm on six. Maybe he's a V-8 and I'm a regular 8? I want him to hit .400 if he can. It would be amazing."
Cooper, 30, has a graceful, almost regal presence. He is also unflappable, which has been particularly helpful this year, because of Brett's long shadow. And he's notably patient. "I'm always willing to talk and I'll listen to other people," he says. "I may not follow their advice, but I have to show respect by listening."
"One of the best things about him is that, although he's one of the best, he never toots his own horn," says Brewer Outfielder Dick Davis. To be sure, Cooper isn't the rah-rah type, but he and the unofficial team captain, Sal Bando, are definitely the leaders of the Brewers.
According to Bando, Cooper is phenomenal. "I've been around guys who have had fantastic years—Reggie Jackson, Dick Allen, whoever—but Cecil has had the most complete year I've ever seen," says Bando. "I call him Black Magic. Pitchers don't know what to do with him because he can make his bat do everything but talk."