Des Moines Hoover High School assistant baseball coach Brad Grier is behind an L-shaped screen in the team’s batting cage on a Friday morning as he tosses a soft pitch to junior infielder Teran Bates. The left-handed-hitting Bates takes a huge hack and smacks the pitch into a net near Grier.
“Nice rip,” Grier says.
Bates isn’t the only one working right now. Seven other members of the Huskies baseball team are in the two bays of the cage working at four stations. Each station has various tasks that range from practicing extension on swings, to letting the ball get deep to the plate and hitting it the other way.
“It’s perfect,” Hoover coach Tyler Brown says of the cage.
The new cages at the school’s baseball and softball complexes were built to help players hone their swings. But they also serve another purpose. They honor the legacy of Des Moines native, Hoover graduate and late Major League Baseball umpire Eric Cooper, who died in 2019.
Thanks to the Hoover community, Cooper’s family and a generous donation from Los Angeles Angels manager Joe Maddon’s charity, the cages — known as “Coop’s Cages” — are accomplishing both goals.
“If it really helps carry on the legacy of Coop and people remember him even more strongly because of that, we’ll take it,” Maddon said in phone interview with The Register.
Joe Maddon’s message
When Cooper, who was nicknamed “Coop”, unexpectedly died in 2019 from a blood clot following knee surgery, condolences poured in. It’s easy to see why. Cooper, who was 52, was a beloved and well-respected umpire who worked a World Series and an All-Star Game. He was behind the plate for Hideo Nomo’s no-hitter in 2001 and Mark Buehrle’s in 2007. Cooper also worked the plate for Buehrle’s perfect game in 2009.
Former Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones offered his condolences on Twitter. So did current Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo. Cooper’s initials were also put on patches worn by umpires during the 2019 World Series. Even Maddon went out of his way to acknowledge Cooper, calling his father, Bill.
“(With) the suddenness of his passing, I knew it had to really impact their family in a very big way,” Maddon said. “So, I just wanted to make sure they understood, out of respect, how much I respected their son and the job that he had done.”
But the conversation didn’t end there. Maddon asked if there was anything he could do for the family. Bill told him about the Eric Cooper Memorial that was founded. Cooper’s mom, Beth, said the idea for the memorial came as a large number of donations started coming in at his celebration of life. Many who donated didn’t say what they wanted the money used for. So, Cooper’s family formed the Eric Cooper Memorial.
When Maddon learned about the memorial, he decided to donate money through his own charity, Respect 90. Maddon matched what the memorial had already earned, giving around $5,000.
“I think it’s amazing and quite wonderful that he would want to,” Beth Cooper said.
The idea of new batting cages at the two sports fields was already on the mind of Jake Burke, Hoover’s director of student activities. Burke, who took over two years ago, wanted to improve the school’s facilities. He singled out the softball and baseball batting cages as one of his top priorities. The baseball batting cage, perched on a slanted hill with gravel, was falling apart. And Burke said the softball cage was in such bad shape the team had stopped using it.
“They were an eyesore for the community,” Burke said.
Burke started to look for some help. He got the Hoover-Meredith Booster Club and Des Moines Public Schools to contribute to the project. It was around that time that Cooper, a proud alum of Hoover, died. His family reached out to Hoover and learned about the batting cages project Burke was working on. They agreed to donate over $10,000 to the project. UMPS CARE Charities, a charity Cooper was heavily involved with, also contributed to the cause.
The project was already headed in a promising direction. But after Maddon’s donation and the help from the memorial, it took off. Burke said they were able to get longer cages and more heavy-duty poles to support the nets. Both cages have cement grounding, two bays, artificial turf and fencing. The baseball cages stretch 70 feet long. The ones at the softball field are 55 feet. In all, Burke estimates around $90,000 was spent on the project.
The school unveiled the two cages during a special dedication ceremony before the season started. Former MLB umpire Mike Everitt, a longtime friend of Cooper’s who now works as an umpire supervisor, was there and spoke to friends, family and players at Hoover who gathered for the ceremony. Everitt talked about how proud Cooper was of Hoover and how much he enjoyed baseball and working with kids.
He then marveled at the cages.
“They’re quality major league cages,” Everitt said.
Cooper’s legacy providing an inspiration
It’s a hot June morning as Brown stands at the cages on the first base side of the baseball field and watches his team take some hack. The way Brown sees it, the cages not only provide a place to work but a spot to be inspired. That’s why he’s studied up on Cooper and taught his team about the man the cages are named after.
“I wanted to share with these guys because it’s the story of someone that goes out and makes it and then wants to give back to this community,” Brown said. “I think it’s very important for these guys to learn those lessons in life because coming from a Des Moines public (school), it doesn’t always happen, but we’ve had a fortunate couple in this school that have done really, really well for themselves and Eric’s one of those. I think it’s a great way to dedicate it to him.”
Both the baseball and softball fields have plaques with Cooper’s name on them, along with “Coop’s Cages” written on a home plate. Maddon was happy to hear where his contributions to the memorial had gone.
“I’m certain the kids will really enjoy that, as well as the adults and the entire community,” Maddon said.
Burke, who has already seen how much baseball and softball players have benefited from the new cages, sent Maddon a letter thanking him for the donation. The cages, the plaques and Cooper’s legacy will live on, hopefully forever, thanks to the project. Everitt said it’s the perfect way to honor Cooper.
“It was really well done,” Everitt said. “And Coop would have been extremely proud. I’m thinking he would probably be driving by there a few times every time he was in town just to check it out.”
Tommy Birch, the Register’s sports enterprise and features reporter, has been working at the newspaper since 2008. He’s the 2018 and 2020 Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Reach him at email@example.com or 515-284-8468. Follow him on Twitter @TommyBirch.