When it was suggested to Cecil Cooper of the Milwaukee Brewers that in the next five years he might well win more American League batting titles than Kansas city's George Brett, he seemed quite ready to accept the possibility.
Cooper, whose .352 batting figure this year played constant tail to Brett's kitelike, league-leading average of .390, is basically a quiet person -- firm but not pushy.
While George got rave notices all year in press for frequently driving his average above the .400 mark, Cooper drew blanks with the news media, which often could not care less about second best. Yet the Brewers' first baseman outdistanced Brett, who was sidelined for part of the season, in two very important areas -- he collected 219 base hits to George's 175 and he also led the American League in runs batted in with 122, compared with Brett's 118.
"I'm really pleased about the RBI figure, because a lot of general managers consider that to be the most important offensive statistic in the game," Cooper said. "With Brett hitting close to .400 all year, I didn't expect to get much publicity, and I didn't have any trouble living with that. The interesting thing is that next year I could hit 20 or 30 points under what I did this season and still maybe win the American League batting championship."
Cooper, who handles his bat the way Rembrandt would a brush, doesn't appear to be aggressive at all, except when he comes to the plate. Then he falls into a deep crouch and hits some of the most beautiful frozen ropes in the game.
In baseball, a frozen rope is a sharply struck line drive that often either escapes the infielder with its speed or goes between the outfielders for extra bases. And Cecil, like Californi's rod Carew, uses every inch of a baseball field in which to drop his hits.
Asked what makes him such a dependable performer, Cooper replied:
"For one thing, I have complete confidence in my ability to hit any kind of a pitch, whether it's a breaking ball or a fast ball or a change-up. I know I'm going to get at least a piece of the ball, and maybe more, every time I go to the plate. And the reason I know that is because you can't teach instinct. Either you're born with this ability or you're not, and then eventually the consistency comes with confidence.
"Up until three or four years ago, I never hit many home runs," Cecil added. "now I'm regularly getting that figure up into the 20s, and a lot of people seem to think that I'm doing something different with my hands and wrists.
"Actually I don't have an explanation in terms of changing something. To me I haven't changed a thing. My personal theory is that the power was always there, only it took time and maturity to bring it out. Basically I'm still a line-drive hitter, only sometimes now my line drives climb right up and out of the park."
For most of the 1980 season, according to Milwaukee player-coach Sal Bando, Cooper had at least one hit in 82 percent of his games. He also had hitting streaks of 21, 16, and 15 games, in which it didn't seem to matter what the pitchers were throwing him.
"To me a ball is in the strike zone if I can reach and drive it to some part of the field safely," Cecil explained. "I've heard all the stories that if a hitter consistently goes after pitches just an inch or two off the plate, then the next time that same pitch is going to be even further outside.
"Well, I've trained myself to stop after two inches: I've always been a good lowball hitter; and I love off-speed pitches that generally upset the timing of most batters. I kill those kinds of pitches and I do it consistently.
"There really isn't anything complicated about me. I try to hit the ball between the defense, and if I get a pitch I can't pull or drive up the middle, then I go to right field. I'm a little unconventional in one respect -- I pass up a lot of strike pitches that other hitters will jump at simply because they don't look good at me; then i will deliberately swing at a ball."
Does Cooper have a weakness as a hitter?
"Yes, I've got one," he replied, "and it took me a long time to overcome that weakness, even though I knew exactly what I was doing wrong. I used to be a sucker for a ball that was high and outside.
"Pitchers would throw this to me my first time up and I'd swing, and then the next time up the ball would be even higher. They had my bat climbing a ladder, and it took me a long time to break that habit. Now, I just don't make that kind of mistake."