By IAN WILSON
When Brent Cooper stepped up to the plate for batting practice at Foothills Stadium on June 28, 2011, he could not believe what was happening.
Not only was the Calgarian playing on the same team as famed slugger Jose Canseco, he was suddenly engaged in an impromptu home run derby of sorts against the 6-4, 240-pound baseball beast.
It was the kind of scenario that normally played out at the helm of a video game controller, or as a bad pickup line at the bar.
But as he dug his cleats in, Cooper had to remind himself that this was happening and it was happening at a real, live baseball diamond.
“The whole home run derby was not set up in the sense that we agreed to go head-to-head or anything like that,” recalled Cooper, a product of Indian River State College in Fort Pierce, Florida, whose alums include MLBers Angel Pagan, Steve Pearce, Johnny Venters and Cory Spangenberg.
And just how did Cooper end up in this position? How did he come to enjoy the ultimate baseball fantasy camp experience?
To figure that out, we have to learn a bit more about how Jose Canseco ended up in Calgary on that fateful June night in 2011.
Canseco was 10 years removed from the majors by that point, having hit the last of his 462 MLB home runs as a member of the Chicago White Sox in 2001. And the buzz from his tell-all, finger-pointing memoir Juiced had largely subsided.
But he was still touring the independent league circuit and in 2011 he signed on with the Yuma Scorpions as a player/manager while his twin brother Ozzie served as a player/hitting coach.
The Scorpions were a part of the North American League, whose member teams included the Calgary Vipers and the Edmonton Capitals. That meant Jose had a date with Calgary from June 28th through July 2nd.
Fortunately for Cooper, not all of Canseco’s teammates could make the trip to Canada.
“The Yuma team had problems getting some of their players across the border,” said Vipers outfielder Drew Miller.
Yuma’s border issues left Scorpions GM Jose Melendez scrambling to find players. He contacted left-handed pitcher Geoff Freeborn, who played for the Vipers from 2006-08, and Freeborn referred Melendez to Cooper.
Freeborn knew Cooper because they had both played internationally together. A short time later, the two were under contract with the Yuma Scorpions.
“They were looking for anyone to help fill their roster. Cooper was there at first to just be the bullpen catcher or backup if someone got hurt,” said Miller.
Cooper had some decent baseball experience by that point – he had played in the 2001 Canada Summer Games and he had also participated in national championships at the midget, junior, and senior level – but he had no illusions about why Melendez called him up.
“I was just a Band-Aid replacement player, another random baseball guy they needed to fill the roster to complete the scheduled games,” he said. “Jose was one hundred per cent the show and rightfully so. He’s a former MLBer and an All-Star.”
The Nova Scotian didn’t really know what to expect when he arrived at the ballpark that Tuesday for the first tilt of a five-game series.
“It was pregame BP and day number one they were here,” said Cooper, adding that typically in batting practice each player takes about 15 swings – five swings per round over three rounds.
“Jose took thirty-five to forty swings total in various rounds with all the groups because fans were there to see him swing … and frankly, so were we.”
Cooper was a part of the last group to take batting practice and he made the most of his opportunity.
“I can confirm the story about Cooper and Canseco,” said Miller, who is friends with the former Calgary Pro Baseball Force (PBF) Redbirds coach, but was his opponent during that series.
“I wasn’t there when BP started, but maybe halfway through a couple guys came into the locker room to tell us that Coop was crushing the ball and Canseco – never one to be outdone – was swinging harder and harder.”
Sure enough, when Miller emerged from the locker room, he saw Cooper going swing for swing against the man who currently sits 35th all-time in career home runs in Major League Baseball.
“Coop was hitting balls like I hadn’t seen him do before,” said Miller, who was born in Medicine Hat and was an All-Star for the Vipers.
“The prospect of signing his first contract must have spurred him on. He was fun to watch that day.”
Whatever edge Canseco had lost to Cooper in terms of home run frequency, he seemed to be making up for in distance.
“Canseco started to hit massive bombs after a while. It looked like he was going to hit McMahon Stadium,” said Miller of the nearby home of the Canadian Football League’s Calgary Stampeders.
Sadly, only 2,125 fans were in attendance that night and most of them had not yet taken their seats.
And while Cooper is aware that baseball stories can easily become as exaggerated as fishing tales over time, he said that he and Canseco were undoubtedly locked in a BP battle.
“Obviously, I can appreciate you hear stories all the time that get embellished and I would say the context of this one is slightly skewed as we did not line up head-to-head or anything like that,” says the former Calgary Cubs Bantam coach. “But there was no doubt some competition, as I was just another nobody in the eyes of Jose Canseco until we took BP.”
Working hard to erase that “nobody” image, Cooper said he still didn’t totally grasp what was happening until after batting practice.
“Hitting is all rhythm and timing. I recall my goal was to make good, solid contact and let the pieces fall into place,” said Cooper of his game plan.
“I’ve always hit well and this particular day I happened to be on the field with a childhood baseball idol, which doesn’t happen often. So, I wanted to ensure, one, I didn’t embarrass myself and, two, to make a good first impression because sometimes that’s all you get.”
After he found his groove, Cooper knew something was going on between him and Canseco, but he wasn’t exactly sure what.
“I honestly was so focused on making solid contact and squaring pitches up, I wasn’t paying too much attention to how many went out … I knew I had a few but it wasn’t until afterward I was told what had happened.”
So, who prevailed in this competition between local unknown versus baseball legend?
“I ended up getting lucky, squaring up a number of balls and hitting more home runs than Jose Canseco,” recalled Cooper.
The strong showing also resulted in more good news for the Scorpion stopgap.
“Cooper was instantly thrown into the lineup and I believe caught and played first for the series,” said Miller.
Instead of serving as a bullpen catcher and not seeing any game action, Cooper’s BP performance prompted Melendez to ink him to a deal with the Scorpions. He played four of the five games in the series, and in addition to seeing time behind the plate and at first base, he also played in the outfield.
Unfortunately, any home runs Cooper had in him were used up before the games got underway, but he did score a run and notch three hits in 13 at bats, including a double, during his first taste of pro baseball.
“It was an unbelievable experience I’ll never forget. He was a childhood idol and a legend to me.”
Lucky or not, it was Cooper who was the legend that night.