GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- The gods of baseball are a capricious lot, not unlike the deities of antiquity. They are more fickle than public opinion, and, like all greedy gods, demand sacrifice. Those supplications may be broken bats, torn hamstrings, days of work or school missed on the holiest of holy days at the start of every April, but what they need – that which sustains them – is devotion. But, no matter how devout the adherent, baseball moves inexorably forward, leaving even the most dedicated acolyte behind.
"They always talk about playing every game like it's your last. Well, I literally watched it get ripped away on something I've done thousands of times in my life – just a simple dive into a base," says Cleveland Indians first baseman David Cooper, who, almost a year ago, didn't even know if he'd ever walk again, much less play another inning of professional baseball at any level.
Cooper is a mechanic. He studies swings – his own, and others – and he fiddles. He tinkers. He shaves and bends, cuts and sews, working at the craft of hitting. While in college at California, he and teammate Josh Satin spent an entire summer swinging together, studying the art of bat-shido. In 2008, Cooper and Satin were one of the best one-two punches in the Pac-10, with Cooper hitting .359 with 14 doubles, 19 home runs and 55 RBIs. Satin, in part thanks to Cooper, recovered from a sub-par redshirt junior season to hit a team-best .379 with 11 doubles, a triple, 18 home runs and 52 RBIs.
The pair parlayed their strong collegiate years into big draft-day jumps, with Cooper being picked No. 17 overall by the Toronto Blue Jays, and Satin being taken in the sixth round by the New York Mets.
Las Vegas 51s, Cooper hit just .121 in 13 games after an April 29 call-up – one of the worst stretches of hitting he'd had at any level, from Lodi (Calif.) Tokay High to Cal State Fullerton to Berkeley. Then, he went back down to Las Vegas and took his frustration out on a truckload of unsuspecting baseballs.
Even by the robust offensive standards of the Pacific Coast League, Cooper was exceptional. He finished hitting .364, with nine home runs and 96 RBIs, and was rewarded with a September call-up. He went 11-for-38 (.289) in his second stint, with six doubles, one home run and seven RBIs.
Cooper did well enough to earn consideration for an early promotion in 2012, and though Cooper didn't break camp with the Jays, he did come up to stay on May 25 and did not disappoint, hitting an even .300 (42-for-140) with four home runs, 11 doubles and 11 RBIs in 45 games. Then, in early August, he began feeling a twinge in his back. He'd developed a herniated disk – not acute enough to merit surgery, but painful. Ironically enough, Cooper had his best month at the dish in August of 2012, seeing action in 19 games and hitting .329 with 37 total bases. On Aug. 22, though, the debt Cooper had been racking up came due on a wet night in Detroit.
"We were in Detroit, and it'd been raining, so what happened was, I hit a ball and it was a quick carom off the wall, so I kind of slammed on the brakes at first, and I slipped a little, so I had to hurry up and get back," Cooper says. "It was a little bit of an awkward dive."
Cooper says that as he tried to get up, he couldn't breathe. He lost all mobility. Underneath the stands at Goodyear Park, he twists right and then left, not more than three degrees in either direction. "This," he says, was his range of motion. "That was it."
"At that point, I tried to keep playing, because I was playing every day and having some success," he continues. "I actually played two more innings of defense, because I didn't understand the severity of what had taken place.
"I didn't lose feeling, but I definitely had shooting pains coming around my ribs, and more predominantly on the right side."
One Indians source holds his fingers about a centimeter apart and says, "He was this close from being paralyzed."
Cooper didn't know it at the time, but that herniated disk had slipped, impinging the nerves in his spine. He wouldn't know that until an MRI in September revealed the herniated thoracic disk that was compressing his spinal cord in his chest cavity -- a location that appears in a whopping 1 to 2 percent of herniated disk patients.
After the sixth inning, Cooper sat down. Four days later, he was placed on the 15-day disabled list.
"I tried to rehab it. A lot of times, disks will heal on their own. I wasn't fortunate enough for that. A that point, it became clear that I needed to take the surgery route," says Cooper. "Rehab, there's really nothing you can do. You do some strengthening exercises that are very low-impact, but it's all just building up the muscles. Either the disk is going to heal, or it's not. You just don't want to do anything to prevent it from healing."
The Blue Jays sent Cooper to Florida for a rehab assignment in early October, but that didn't last very long.
"They sent me down to Florida for a rehab assignment, but it just wasn't getting better," Cooper says. "I think it was just one game. I couldn't. It was hurting. We finally caught the full gravity of the situation, so at that point, I had to have the surgery."
Cooper's herniated disk was pressing on his spinal cord, and there was only one solution: Vertebral fusion.
Three weeks before Cooper was scheduled to have surgery, the Blue Jays – the team that drafted him – released him. Cooper wasn't surprised.
"I won't say I saw it coming, but I knew something was about to happen," he says.
Cooper was less than a month from having his spine operated on, and despite a Berkeley education, his one marketable skill – the uncanny ability to square up a round ball on a round bat – was at risk, to say nothing of his ability to simply put one foot in front of the other. In April, Cooper went under the knife, and he was all too aware of the life-altering risks involved.
"It was really hard. Beyond baseball, it was such a big surgery. Paralysis was part of the risks," Cooper says. "The herniated disk, it impinged on my spinal cord, and they had to go in and remove it and put in a titanium plate and bolts."
A normal surgery to repair the injury would require an 18-inch incision in the chest wall, which would allow him to remove a rib and crank open the chest cavity. Paralysis wasn't the only risk. Cooper could also have suffered from pneumonia, chronic pain and/or lung complications.
Dr. Curtis Dickman -- a pioneer in endoscopy, based in the Phoenix area -- had another plan. Because of the location of the herniation, Dickman could not go in through the neck or lower back. The thoracic spine is surrounded by the rib cage, complicating matters further, because when a herniated thoracic disk -- like the one Cooper had -- compresses the front of the spinal cord, surgery has to go through the front of the chest, rather than the back. In a four-hour endoscopic procedure, Dickman used a special breathing tube to block the air flow on one side of Cooper's chest cavity, temporarily deflating his lung and giving him room to work. Instead of the 18-inch cash, he made small incisions between the ribs, and removed the herniated disk material, and then inserted two titanium screws and a titanium plate, fusing Cooper's T-7 and T-8 vertebrae along with some bone grafts from his rib.
Baseball, for the time being, wasn't nearly as important as being able to walk again, which Cooper began to do, slowly. As Cooper says, you have to be able to walk before you can run to first.
"It was kind of just, ‘Let's get through the surgery and make sure everything goes correctly, and then, I'll get refocused on baseball,'" Cooper recalls.
For nearly 11 months, Cooper did not swing a baseball bat. From his futile rehab game until he was finally medically cleared – on July 5, 2013 – he was, for the longest time in his life, without baseball.
"The good news about my surgery was that it was in the mid-back. It's a bigger surgery, but the recovery time is a lot quicker," Cooper says. "Three months after, I was cleared. I just basically had to wait for the fusion to heal. Once the fusion heals, you're good to go."
It took Cooper about a month of taking hacks and getting back into some semblance of game shape before he let his agent start floating some trial balloons.
"I started swinging the day I got cleared, even if it was just dry swings. I actually rehabbed out here," Cooper says. "We kind of started putting word out that I was healthy, once I got cleared. Even though I was cleared, though, I still needed time to build up my strength. About a month after, we started putting word out and I ended up signing here."
The Indians pounced on Cooper in August, and he went to Columbus, Ohio, for seven games with the Clippers of the International League. It didn't go well. He hit just .192 in 26 at-bats. He then spent six games with the Indians' Arizona League team, going 11-for-25 with three doubles and five RBIs. Several months later, he was on the 40-man roster, with an invitation to Major League Spring Training.
"It means everything," smiles Cooper, who, growing up in the Bay Area, watched two of his current teammates play for the Oakland Athletics. "It definitely hits home."
Not only are the effervescent Nick Swisher and the grizzled Jason Giambi teammates for Cooper, but they're also twin mentors. Swisher, shockingly enough, does most of the talking. Cooper – who has always been a bit more of a shrinking violet, even going back to his college days – does all of the listening.
"He'll talk your ear off," Cooper says of Swisher.
"There are a lot of factors in the game that he knows about, just in general, to have that guy around here, especially for all these young thundercats that we've got," Swisher says of Giambi, going into his 20th season. "I'm 11 years in, and I look up to this guy. I can't imagine a guy who's trying to break into the big leagues, walks into the locker room and sees Jason Giambi. He must be like, ‘Holy s***, man! That's Jason Giambi!'"
While Cooper won't go anywhere close to an exclamation point any time soon, he speaks in hushed tones about the aging slugger.
"I grew up watching him," Cooper says. "I'd never crossed paths with Giambi until now, actually. He's either been in Arizona spring training and I've been in Florida, and even during the regular season, never. It is one of those experiences where you look back and go, ‘Wow, I was watching him coming up as a kid.'"
While Giambi's strength has never really been his defense, there is common ground between him and Cooper – who made a leaping grab to save an out and end the second inning in Friday's 4-0 Cactus League win over the Cincinnati Reds – and that common ground is hitting, something for which Cooper now carries a greater appreciation.
"They've played this game for a long time," Cooper says of Swisher and Giambi. "They have a lot of stuff to share and you can pick up a lot, when they're talking about hitting, defense, whatever. They've done it all for a long time."
Now, with a new lease on his baseball life – a faith, renewed – Cooper is hoping to do the same.
Ryan Gorcey covers Major League Baseball for Scout.com, and is the publisher of BearTerritory.net and GoldenStatePreps.com.
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