Retired MLB slugger and his wife are on a mission for God
FLORENCE, Ala. — Josh Willingham stayed up most of the…
HOUSTON — Bench coach Cecil Cooper’s time with the Houston Astros brought an unexpected blessing soon after he joined the team in 2005.
A few days into spring training, Cooper walked into a Sunday night service of the Kissimmee Church of Christ in Florida.
“I see the back of this guy’s head, and I’m like, ‘That guy looks familiar,’” said Cooper, 56, a five-time All-Star during his 17-year playing career. “So I walked down the aisle a little bit and peaked around, and there was ‘Stretch’ Suba.”
Joseph Suba, the longtime Houston bullpen catcher and batting practice pitcher, had met Cooper the previous Friday.
But neither realized the other was a church member.
“Both of our eyes just opened up,” said Suba, who played at Oklahoma Christian University in the 1970s. “He’s been an inspiration to me because we believe the same way.”
Likewise, Cooper said Suba has blessed him: “I thank God that I found someone that I can share with.”
Cooper met his future wife, Octavia, in the fall of 1972.
By that time, he had enjoyed a few short stints with the Boston Red Sox while working his way through the minor leagues.
Octavia, who grew up in the Church of Christ, shared the gospel with Cecil. He was baptized at age 23.
The couple married in February 1976. They have three daughters: Kelly, 28; Brittany, 18; and Tori, 12.
Throughout his career — in which he batted .298 with 241 home runs and 1,125 RBIs with Boston and the Milwaukee Brewers — Cooper said he tried to be consistent in his play and his faith.
“I was never one of those guys that you heard about in the media that create problems here and there,” the two-time Gold Glove first baseman said. “I tried to carry my Christianity with me all the time.”
Cooper, who twice led the American League in RBIs and still holds Brewers single-season records for hits (219 in 1980) and RBIs (126 in 1983), retired from playing in 1987. He worked in several capacities in the Milwaukee organization — including managing Triple-A affiliate Indianapolis — before joining the Astros.
Cooper works closely with manager Phil Garner and fills in when Garner is suspended or given an early exit from a game.
Jose De Jesus Ortiz, who covers the Astros for the Houston Chronicle, describes Cooper as one of baseball’s most prepared coaches and predicts he will be offered a major-league managing job as soon as this winter.
“If it happens, it happens,” Cooper said. “I’m going to do what I’ve got to do.”
In the offseason, Cooper leads singing at the 25-member Anderson Street Church of Christ in Sealy, Texas, about 50 miles west of Houston.
Cooper takes meticulous notes during the sermon and often asks minister Horace Stroud about specific Scriptural references.
“Cecil is one of our most faithful members, if not the most faithful,” Stroud said. “When Cecil played baseball, he was a perfectionist. That has transcended to his service to God. He’s about doing things right. He’s about doing things according to the Scriptures — give me book, chapter and verse.”
Making it to Sunday morning services poses more of a challenge during the season: Players and coaches typically must arrive at the ballpark by 10 a.m.
“In some cases, it’s really difficult,” Cooper said.
But — with the help of his minister — he almost always finds a way to worship and partake of the Lord’s Supper.
At home, Cooper usually attends the 8 a.m. service at the Fifth Ward church near Minute Maid Park. On the road, he depends on Stroud to help line up a congregation with “sound doctrine.”
Before a recent series in Pittsburgh, Stroud put Cooper in touch with Earl Wilkerson, senior minister of the Holiday Park Church of Christ. But the coach could not attend the regular 11 a.m. service and still make it to the ballpark on time.
“As he and I continued to talk,” Wilkerson recalled, “I just said, ‘What if we come to you?’”
“We have a lot of guys who are really good Bible students, and you have to study to stay up with them because you have to have answers. And Coop has always been able to do that.”
At 8 a.m. that Sunday, about 15 Holiday Park members met Cooper in a 26th floor conference room at the Westin Hotel.
Suba, who worships at the Mission Viejo Church of Christ in California, in the offseason, also came to the service, as did Astros first base coach Jose Cruz and outfielder Willy Taveras.
“We just had a typical service,” Wilkerson said. “Cecil led some singing. … One of our guys led a prayer. I brought a little lesson for about 15 minutes, and then we served communion. For every one of us who came, it was just such an encouragement.”
Cooper’s spiritual influence extends to the clubhouse.
“He’s always there answering questions,” Suba said. “We have a lot of guys who are really good Bible students, and you have to study to stay up with them because you have to have answers. And Coop has always been able to do that.”
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