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Bisons Fan Favorite Returns to Queen City04/21/2009 9:48 AM ET
By Joel Godett / Buffalo Bisons
John Maine and Josh Bard were the stars at Coca-Cola Field on August 15th, 2004. Maine, pitching for the Ottawa Lynx, tossed six innings of one hit baseball against the Buffalo Bisons that day. Bard did one better, slamming a three-run walk-off homerun to make the Herd winners in the 10th.
But more important than what was accomplished with both performances was who debuted in left field for Buffalo - 23-year-old Stanford product Jason Cooper.
The outfielder was in his second full pro season and off a 14 homer campaign with Double-A Akron up to that point. Cooper finished his maiden performance for the Herd 0-3. Five years later he's a Buffalo fan favorite and the team's leader in modern era games played. He also ranked in the top five in RBI, doubles, triples, runs, hits, walks, total bases, and sacrifice flies and is sixth in homers.
When Cooper was moved to the Bisons' active roster for Saturday's game at Syracuse, it marked his 411th appearance in a Buffalo uniform and the beginning of his 6th year in the Queen City.
But Cooper's reappearance in Buffalo took curvy road this offseason. A free agent following last season, Cooper didn't know what organization or what team he would play for this year. He didn't know if he'd be somewhere else in the International League or out west in the Pacific Coast League. He didn't know if he'd ever again play, home or away, in Buffalo. His wife was less unsure.
"I just had a gut feeling," Suzanne Cooper said. "Knowing Jason was going to be a free agent, no matter what happened we were going to still be here. Maybe it was just that we had been here for so long that it would feel strange to be anywhere else."
Suzanne's hunch proved to be correct when her husband signed with the Mets on January 15th, four months after the Amazins agreed to move their Triple-A affiliation to Western New York. Jason said it was more a coincidence than anything else. Cooper said he had contact with Mets coaches during winter ball in Puerto Rico and the team called him in January thinking their coupling would be a good fit.
Signing with New York is also a fresh start for Cooper, who had spent his entire seven year career in the Cleveland Indians minor league system.
"I'm new to them and they're new to me," the 28-year old Cooper said. "I feel like I have an opportunity here to get off on the right foot and make a good first impression."
That new beginning took some time to launch, however. A casualty of a numbers game, Cooper spent the first nine games of the season inactive, watching his new team from the top step of the dugout.
"It's one of those things were you hate to be inactive and to not be able to help your team," Cooper said, "but it's worth the wait. I realize you've got a lot of good players on this team. Things happen that allowed me to play and I'm ready to start contributing right away."
One of the things that put Cooper in a position to contribute right away was his openness to trying a new position. An outfielder by trade, Cooper made his first career appearance at third base Saturday, starting at the hot corner after playing first base during the winter and spring.
"I talked with him last week and said 'Have you ever played third?' and he said no," explained Bisons manager Ken Oberkfell. "I said I think it would be a plus for you to get over there and take some ground balls, it's just another position you can learn to play."
"I've never been over there," the newfound utility man said. "I played some first base in Puerto Rico (winter league), but I've never been over at the hot corner. I don't know what to expect, but I'm excited at the opportunity."
But regardless of position, the thing Bisons fans have become most familiar with about Cooper is his bat. It's the same bat that turned a baseball into a parking lot painting last season when Cooper hit a homerun over the Heron's Landing roof in right field. It's the same bat that's hit 49 career long balls in Triple-A.
"I pride myself on being able to do the little things," Coop said. "Hopefully moving guys over, getting the big hit when they need it, and driving guys in. They expect that of me every time they're going to run me out there and I'm going to expect it of myself."
"Right now we're struggling scoring runs," Oberkfell said. "The bottom line is we need some offense and we know he's very capable of putting some points on the board for us."
While his career numbers rank among Buffalo's best, Cooper would like 2009 to be different than previous runs. Still with hopes of breaking into the major leagues for the first time, the lefty wants to become more consistent, and knows he can. Cooper said not playing every day over the last couple of years made finding a groove difficult. He thinks that with the Mets, however, he faces a situation where the hot hand gets played. The hope is to earn a spot in the lineup and give no reason for it to be taken back.
"It's tough at this level and to put it all together you've got to stay with your routine," Cooper said, "stay with a good mental approach and believe in yourself."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.