In theory, the trade for Scott Cooper appeared to be ideal for the Cardinals. Cooper was a St. Louis native, a Cardinals fan and a two-time all-star third baseman who looked to be entering his prime. In reality, though, the deal was a bust.
Cooper, 27, was thrilled to join his hometown team and the Cardinals were thrilled to get a player with a reputation for producing steady hitting and solid defense.
After a fairy tale debut _ he hit a two-run single in the bottom of the ninth to lift the Cardinals to a 7-6 victory over the Phillies in the season opener at St. Louis _ Cooper failed to meet expectations. He hit .230 with three home runs for the 1995 Cardinals and made 18 errors.
When the season ended, he became a free agent and went to Japan.
Replacing a legend
Cooper was 15 when the Cardinals won the 1982 World Series title. The exhilarating experience of seeing his favorite team become big-league champions “left a dent in my soul,” he told the Associated Press.
A standout player at Pattonville High School in the St. Louis suburb of Maryland Heights, Mo., Cooper was chosen by the Red Sox in the third round of the 1986 amateur draft. He signed with them and made his big-league debut with Boston in 1990.
When free-agent Wade Boggs left the Red Sox for the Yankees after the 1992 season, Cooper replaced the five-time American League batting champion as Boston’s third baseman.
Cooper responded splendidly to the challenge. He was named an AL all-star in 1993 and 1994. His batting average in five years with Boston was .284.
In April 1995, general managers Walt Jocketty of the Cardinals and Dan Duquette of the Red Sox discussed a deal. The Red Sox wanted Whiten and Cormier. Jocketty wanted Cooper.
Jocketty agreed to trade Whiten but offered pitcher Tom Urbani instead of Cormier.
“We needed Cormier in the deal to make it go,” Duquette said.
Talks stalled. Jocketty gave the Red Sox a deadline of April 8.
When it became clear the Red Sox wouldn’t make the deal without Cormier being included _ “They were pretty adamant about it,” Cardinals manager Joe Torre told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch _ Jocketty relented.
On the afternoon of April 8, Cooper and teammates Roger Clemens and Eric Wedge were golfing in Fort Myers, Fla. “I was getting ready to hit this ball and this guy in a cart comes barreling around the corner,” Cooper said.
“Are you Scott Cooper?” asked the man in the cart. “Mr. Dan Duquette wants you to call him immediately.”
Said Cooper: “My heart sank. I looked at Clem and said, ‘Are you messing with me?’ … Roger looked at me and he was real serious. He said, ‘I would never play that kind of trick on you.’ ”
Duquette told Cooper of the trade to the Cardinals.
Contacted soon after by Rick Hummel of the Post-Dispatch, Cooper said, “I can’t begin to describe the emotion I’m feeling right now. I’m numb all over. The Red Sox let me fulfill my dream. They gave me the opportunity to be a major leaguer. But my lifetime dream as a kid was to play for the St. Louis Cardinals.”
Asked about the pressure of playing at home, Cooper told The Sporting News, “If I can come in and take the place of Wade Boggs and play in front of that crowd in Boston and make two all-star teams, I can play in my hometown in front of my family and friends.”
The Cardinals moved Todd Zeile, a converted catcher, from third base to first base, replacing Gregg Jefferies, who had become a free agent and signed with the Phillies. Brian Jordan, a highly-regarded prospect, replaced Whiten in right field. Urbani took over for Cormier in the starting rotation.
“Cooper is known for his defense and that was one of the major reasons we wanted to get him,” Jocketty said. “Plus, he’s a good left-handed bat.
“We feel Zeile will be a better first baseman than Jefferies was and we feel Cooper will make us better defensively at third. He has good hands, a good arm. He’s a real third baseman.”
(Bailey, the other player acquired from Boston by the Cardinals, became a productive reliever. He spent most of the 1995 season as the closer at Class AAA Louisville, earning 25 saves, and then was 5-2 with a 3.00 ERA in 51 games for the 1996 Cardinals.)
By mid June, the 1995 Cardinals were scuffling. Torre got fired. Zeile was traded to the Cubs.
Cooper, hitting .310 as late as May 20, had a miserable summer. He batted .164 in July and .183 in August.
For the season, Cooper hit .210 (21-for-100) with runners in scoring position. He had almost as many strikeouts (85) as hits (86).
After spending the 1996 season in Japan (where he hit .243 in 81 games), Cooper returned to the big leagues with the 1997 Royals and batted .201.
That would be his final major-league season. At age 30, three years after being named an all-star, his big-league playing career was finished.
Previously: How Scott Cooper made memorable Cardinals debut