The journey began in the upper deck, where the boy draped himself over a Shea Stadium railing, digesting every bullpen movement of the only hero a kid could have in those days: Tom Seaver. And when Seaver finished his warmups and began his walk to the mound, young Don Cooper scampered through the box seats, getting real close, and then walked through the aisles until his steps matched Seaver's and it felt like they were walking together -- the great Seaver and little Don Cooper, the right-hander from Woodside, Queens.
Even now, the man perhaps most responsible for the White Sox reaching the World Series gets misty thinking about a Hall of Fame pitcher he's never even met. Not that he's sure he wants to.
"To this day, I would probably be intimidated by his greatness in my eyes," Cooper said. "When he would be interviewed in the paper or on [Ralph] "Kiner's Korner," it was gospel. When I got the newspaper I wouldn't read the stories, I'd just start searching for the quotes from Seaver just to see what he said."
It's hard to imagine Cooper awed by much. When the White Sox kept winning right into the playoffs, people started wondering how it was that Chicago's starting pitchers were so dominant all at once, how a washout like Jose Contreras suddenly was the best pitcher in the American League. This led them to the man strutting through the clubhouse in a short-sleeve warmup jacket, a tough-talking New Yorker who drops his "r" and replaces it with "uh" -- as in "Seavuh."
They discovered that the White Sox pitching coach loved to talk . . . and talk . . . and talk.
"I'm a talker," he said. "People say I talk. They say I talk too much. I call it communicating. But when you want to talk about my pitching staff, I've got all day."
How can he not want to talk these days? How can he not want to go on for hours and hours about these pitchers of his who have shocked the baseball world? It's not like anyone didn't think there was talent in Contreras, Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland and Freddy Garcia. Yet coming into this season, only Buehrle had fulfilled his potential. Contreras had been a disaster since signing with the Yankees after defecting from Cuba; Garland (a first-round pick) had been mediocre his first three years as a starter; and Garcia's career seemed to be falling apart before he joined the White Sox last summer.
Something happened to all of them at once and no one believes it was simply luck. They got better and better until quietly they became the best pitching staff in the American League.
"I always say you're a good coach when you have good players," Chicago Manager Ozzie Guillen said. "We have a pretty good pitching staff, it's easy to go coach that one. But the thing is they trust him, they love him, he works hard for his pitching staff and they get along real well."
In a way, Cooper is the ideal fit for this team of castoffs and rejects. His path was largely anonymous, a circuitous route through the Yankees' farm system, trapping himself in the team's Class AAA affiliate in Columbus, Ohio. "I was the Norm of Columbus," he joked, "everywhere I went it was 'Hey, Coop, What's up, Coop?' "
After a 44-game major league career, he made another long march, this time through the White Sox farm system, where he coached in cities such as South Bend, Ind., Sarasota, Fla., Birmingham and Nashville, all in hopes of landing the ultimate prize: a job in the major leagues.
"I did everything I could," he said. "I talked at the camps, I talked at all the camps I could. If there is someone who did more camps, I would like to meet him. And I'm not saying this derisively, I say it so I can shake his hand and say, 'Hey, you're out there.' I coached in winter ball for five years so I could learn to speak Spanish, so I could be more effective in my job. I wanted a feather in my cap where they say, 'Oh jeez, he can speak Spanish, too.' "
All the work finally paid off three years ago, when he became Chicago's pitching coach. And now here he is, at 48 years old, all those years after following Seaver through the stands at Shea, and he's the mentor of the best collection of pitchers in the American League. And last week, after his pitchers threw three straight complete games in the ALCS and someone told him the last group to do it was the 1973 Mets, he laughed and said, "Hey, those are my guys." Contreras then added a fourth complete game.
Now he's famous.
"I look at myself as a teacher," he said. "But I'm not teaching history, English or math. I'm teaching pitching. How fortunate am I? How blessed am I to be part of this thing? Believe me, I know that. There are a lot of guys in the minors who could do this as well or better. But I'm here and I'm blessed."
He's made it at last.