Queens Youth Shaped White Sox Coach

Don Cooper vividly remembers growing up in Maspeth, Queens.

He and his buddies played sports every day – mainly as Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) stars in baseball and basketball for St. Mary’s of Winfield, Woodside.

He said he didn’t have a care in the world and can still recall the schoolyards, gymnasiums and baseball fields where he played.

“It was a great time; we were just playing sports,” Cooper said. “That’s all we did. It was basketball and baseball. Looking back on it, it was a blast. We played hard, and we played to win every single day in the schoolyards.”

That competitive mentality prepared Cooper for his current job as the pitching coach of the Chicago White Sox. He’s been able to steadily rise through the baseball ranks, and he credits his CYO days in Maspeth, Woodside, Jackson Heights and all over New York City for his success.

White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper walks his pitchers through a series of drills during spring training in Glendale, Ariz. (Photo by Ron Vesely © 2013 Chicago White Sox)
White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper walks his pitchers through a series of drills during spring training in Glendale, Ariz. (Photo by Ron Vesely © 2013 Chicago White Sox)

Cooper, 56, played baseball and basketball for Msgr. McClancy M.H.S., East Elmhurst, starting in 1970. He was a pitcher and corner infielder and helped lead the Crusaders to three straight city championship appearances. His efforts landed him a perennial spot on The Tablet’s Baseball All-Star team and a 1997 induction into the McClancy Hall of Fame.

Cooper said that he’d always remember the positive influences instilled in him by his McClancy coaches: Don Holden, Dan Mascia and George Bruns. Cooper was actually a member of the basketball team when Bruns was signed by the New York Nets in the spring of 1973.

From there, Cooper played baseball and basketball at the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT), Old Westbury, L.I. After a successful college career, he was drafted as a pitcher in 1978 by the New York Yankees at age 22.

“My focus from the third grade up was that, ‘I’m playing Major League Baseball,’” Cooper said. “That was my dream, and that’s what I always sought after. I was blessed enough to get that dream fulfilled.”

Cooper made his Major League debut on April 9, 1981 for the Minnesota Twins – becoming the first McClancy graduate to reach the big leagues. His pitching career included stints with the Twins, Toronto Blue Jays and Yankees.

While his playing career did not last as long as he would have liked, Cooper said he was lucky enough to be asked to become a pitching coach in the White Sox minor league system. It turns out that he was hired to the organization by Sammy Ellis, who was Cooper’s coach at NYIT.

Cooper spent 15 years in various roles in the White Sox system, but in July, 2002, he was promoted to take over as the pitching coach for the Major League club. He’s currently the third-longest tenured pitching coach with the same team in the majors behind only Dave Righetti (San Francisco Giants) and Rick Anderson (Twins).

Under his tutelage, the Sox won the 2005 World Series – the team’s first since 1917. Cooper also holds a .500 career winning percentage as a manager when he finished 1-1 after Chicago fired Ozzie Guillen in late September, 2011.

Cooper said he feels much more comfortable as a coach in the big leagues than he ever did as a player. He turned his dream of playing professional baseball into a reality, and he now takes pride in helping young players achieve that same dream.

But more so than just facilitating his players’ jump to the big leagues, Cooper’s job with his pitchers is to help them build careers. He’s already groomed White Sox lefty phenom Chris Sale into a budding superstar, and Jose Quintana and Dylan Axelrod are the next up-and-comers for the Chicago pitching staff.

This season, Cooper and the Sox will play a two-game series May 7-8 at Citi Field, Flushing, against the New York Mets. He’s already planning to visit the McClancy baseball team and his old McClancy teammate, Nick Melito, who is currently the Crusaders’ head coach.

Looking back on his 34-year professional baseball career, Cooper said that he views everything as a blessing. He said that it was no accident that God put the right people – including teammates, coaches, family and friends – in his life to help him along his journey.

“I’m running the course that God laid out for me,” Cooper said. “I didn’t know at one time that I was on a course; I was just going. I’ve come to realize that I’ve been on His course the whole time.”

As his career continues, he said that he will never stop having fun being involved with the game. That all started from his days in Queens, which have helped him become a difference maker in the lives of so many young pitchers.

“I’ve got the best seat in the house,” Cooper said. “I’m watching the best game on the planet played by the best players on the planet.”