A football game helped steer Garrett Cooper to the baseball program at Auburn. And going head-to-head against elite college pitching in the Southeastern Conference prepared him to be a professional.
Now, as a rookie first baseman for Helena in the Pioneer League, things have come together nicely for Cooper.
"Playing in the SEC, it just got me ready for pro ball to see guys pumping 95 [mph] every Friday night," Cooper said. "The SEC is made of pitching. Guys turn down the first round [of the Draft] to go to Vanderbilt, guys turn down the first round to go to Florida. If you can hit well there, you can hit well in the Minors."
The 6-foot-6, 230-pound Cooper has hit well to this point of his pro career. He quickly established himself as a top power hitter in the Pioneer League by leading the league in homers and ranking in the top three in OPS during the first week of the season. Entering July 3, Cooper was hitting .286 and was tied for his team's lead in hits (12), home runs (3) and RBIs (6).
Originally from Manhattan Beach, Calif., Cooper first attended El Camino College in Torrance, Calif., out of high school. Two years later he went on a recruiting trip to Auburn and took in a football game between LSU and Auburn (quarterbacked by Cam Newton). He was amazed by the atmosphere and soon committed to the Tigers.
In two seasons at Auburn, Cooper hit .340 with 12 home runs and 68 RBIs and had a .452 on-base percentage. This past June, the Milwaukee Brewers made him a sixth-round Draft pick.
"I think right now Garrett's swinging the bat well," said first-year Helena manager Tony Diggs. "He comes to us from a pretty good program, and he has a pretty good idea at the plate of what he's trying to get accomplished.
"He's being selective, which means he's making pitchers work. And I think, because he has power, pitchers are trying to pitch him a little differently. If they fall behind in the count, they've got to come back to him. And he takes full advantage of it."
Diggs says Cooper has a lot of power potential, and that he'll continue to work to hone it.
Coming out of college, Cooper expected the biggest adjustment to be the transition from aluminum to wood bats. But it's been a smooth change so far. Cooper said his power numbers haven't surprised him too much, but the daily routine -- the pregame workouts and the long bus rides -- has caught his attention.
"It's something most kids don't know is going on," Cooper said. "Playing in the SEC, you maybe have a couple practices a week and you play four or five games. But once you get out here you come to the ballpark for 10 or 11 hours. You need your sleep. It's a daily grind. But I chose this life, and it's exactly what I expected coming out here.
"I just want to continue what I'm doing -- keep hitting the ball hard and hopefully we keep winning. I just want to move up the ladder and hopefully make the Major Leagues. That's every person's dream when they get drafted. But it's how much work you put into it."
Ready to go: Grand Junction right-hander Jonathan Gray will finally make his professional debut when he gets the start July 10 against Billings. The 6-foot-4, 240-pound Gray, a highly touted power pitcher, was the No. 3 overall pick by the Rockies in the 2013 Draft out of the University of Oklahoma.
Shutting them down: In an age of pitch counts and innings limits, a nine-inning shutout is rare in the Pioneer League. But Missoula right-hander Felipe Perez got one July 1 in a 5-0 victory over Helena. In a game that took just one hour and 53 minutes to complete, Perez tossed 83 pitches, scattered three hits without a walk, struck out two and retired the last 14 hitters he faced.
Following their footsteps: Ogden boasts a pair of prospects who are also the sons of former Major League stalwarts. Right-handed pitcher Jordan Hershiser is the son of 1988 National League Cy Young Award winner Orel Hershiser, and shortstop Dillon Moyer is the son of pitcher Jamie Moyer, who won more than 250 games in a 25-year big league career.