NEW HAMPSHIRE — The cell phone crackles as the bus makes its way down a New England road, but it isn’t the poor reception that’s on James Cooper’s mind.
The former Santa Monica High School and Loyola Marymount University standout is taking time out during one of the many bus rides that comes along with being in the minor leagues to talk about where he’s at with his career following an oblique injury that sidelined him for 40 games earlier this season.
“It’s good to be back,” Cooper said of his return to the lineup this week. “I missed a big part of the season.”
The Trenton Thunder, the double-A affiliate of the New York Yankees, are currently second in the standings and are the two-time defending Eastern League Champs. Cooper was called up to the club midway through last season and helped the team earn a playoff berth. He had just recently been named a single A All-Star and his stock was on the rise.
But as is the case with many ballplayers, the injury bug took a bite out of what should have been a pivotal 2009 season. Despite the injury, Cooper is hitting .279 this season with 21 RBIs.
Cooper said that the injury first surfaced while he was taking swings in the batting cage. He said he felt it pull, but he was quick to tell team trainers that he was fine before stepping back into the cage.
This time there was no doubt that he had injured his oblique. An extended trip to the disabled list may have robbed the outfielder of opportunities to show the organization what he could do, but he’s not worried about that.
Right now, he just wants to get some playing time.
He’s currently in a five-man outfield platoon, one that affords precious few opportunities to show the player development department what he can do. He said he understands the situation and has decided to concentrate on the things that he controls. It’s tough to advance in a system that includes the likes of Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon, both starters in the Yankees’ outfield.
“I wish I was out there every day,” Cooper said. “All I can do is try to help the team win when I get my opportunities.”
Cooper’s head coach while at LMU, Frank Cruz, said that he thinks the outfielder has the tools to crack a big league lineup, even if some of those tools don’t show up in a box score.
“His biggest asset is being a leader,” Cruz said. “Without being a really vocal guy, he led by example.”
Cooper may have the traits to make it to the show, but it’s hard to tell if his bosses feel the same way.
“I never know what they are thinking,” Cooper said of team evaluators. “They don’t tell you much.”
He describes his time in the Yankees’ organization as being under the radar — a place he said he’s accustomed to.
Since being drafted in the ninth round out of LMU, Cooper said that he hasn’t been a highly-touted prospect, but that hasn’t stopped his ascent through the minors.
“I try to do the best I can and leave the rest up to God,” he said.
Home on the road
Cooper, who graduated from Samohi in 2002 and went on to attend LMU, never had to travel far from the Westside during his school years. That all changed once the Yankees made him a draft choice.
He said that the endless road trips were trying at first for a player who wasn’t used to being away from home.
“My parents and friends couldn’t see me play as much,” Cooper, who lives in the area during the offseson, said.
He added that the camaraderie with fellow minor leaguers has helped, but nothing replaces familiar faces for a player new to the road.
It took a little time for Cooper to grow accustomed to the increased number of games at locations across the country, but it wasn’t long until he shook off the road jitters and began to fall into the schedule of a pro ballplayer.
“Now I know what to expect,” Cooper said. “I understand that I’m going to be gone for half of the year.
“I’m just used to it.”