The Bears of Summer

Above: Once a pitcher for the NYIT Bears, Don Cooper has served as a coach in the Chicago White Sox organization for more than 20 years. In 2002, he became the major league team's head pitching coach and, in 2005, celebrated with his players when they became the World Series champions.

By Michael Schiavetta (M.A. '07)

Once upon a spring day in 1975, NYIT freshman Don Cooper pitched a complete game to defeat an Adelphi University team of older, more experienced players. It was a victory he will remember for the rest of his life—a moment, he says, when “I knew I was going to play pro ball.”

Thirty years later, Don, now the Chicago White Sox pitching coach, celebrated with his players when they ended an 88-year drought to become the 2005 World Series champions. “I fulfilled my childhood dreams,” he recalls. The next year, the NYIT grad was welcomed back to his alma mater and given an honorary doctorate degree at the university’s 45th annual commencement.

Photo courtesy of Upper Deck

Photo courtesy of Topps

Don Cooper and Bob Hirschfield, head coach of the NYIT Bears, inside Recreation Hall at the Old Westbury campus. For nearly 30 years, Don has returned to his alma mater to share his expertise with high school coaches, as well as the next generation of professional ball players.

Those lucky enough to have experienced the thrill of staring down a 90-mile per hour fastball will tell you that what you see across nine innings is not all there is in the life of a professional baseball player. But along with the intense pressure, physical training, and mental discipline needed to succeed comes the incredible sense of self-accomplishment and admiration among fans worldwide.

Allen Watson and Ray Giannelli (B.S. ’96) join Don as NYIT alumni who have lived and breathed the world of Major League Baseball. As a pitcher for several baseball teams, including the New York Yankees and the New York Mets, Allen has enjoyed his share of memorable moments, including three appearances in the 1999 American League Championship Series.

“It was an incredible time,” says Allen, owner of the sports bar Triple Play, in Queens, N.Y. As a pitcher on the Yanks, he recalls, “Every time we went out there, we thought we were going to win. We didn’t think anyone could beat us.”

Ray’s baseball career spans 10 years across several teams, though he actually rejected his first offer to join the big leagues. “During my junior year [at NYIT], I was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles but did not sign,” he says. “I instead chose to finish my degree.” It was a gutsy move, but one that paid off.

After earning his bachelor’s degree in marketing, Ray signed with the Toronto Blue Jays and posted big numbers in the minor leagues, including a tremendous 1989 season in which he hit .301 with 18 home runs and 85 RBIs for the Myrtle Beach Blue Jays. In that same year, he was ranked in the top five of every offensive category for third basemen in the South Atlantic league.

Ray recalls the moment he got called up to the majors in 1991. “At first, I thought they were talking about a promotional game,” he says. “ ‘Nope,’ they said, ‘Pack your bags.’ ”

He made his major league debut on May 4 and lined a single in his first at-bat against the Kansas City Royals. Though he was sent back to the minors later that season, Ray returned to the majors to play alongside Allen on the 1995 St. Louis Cardinals.

Allen, who was drafted in 1991 by the Cards, is quick to note that getting to the majors is not for the timid. “Everyone around the world plays baseball,” he says. “The competition is fierce.” One key to success, according to Allen, lies in the mental focus one brings to the game.

Don agrees. With a baseball career that spans more than three decades, including more than 20 years as a White Sox coach, he knows what separates the good player from the great. “Baseball is such a wonderful game because you don’t need to be the fastest or the tallest,” he says. “You need to use your brain. The players who are mentally strongest are the best.”

The rewards that come with maintaining a strong mental focus, adds Don, are worth it. The former Yankee recalls the day in 1985 when he first put on the legendary pinstripe uniform. “Something would have been missing in my baseball career [if I hadn’t played for the Yankees],” he says. As a pitcher, he got the chance to work for managers Yogi Berra and Billy Martin, as well as play alongside Don Mattingly, Ron Guidry, Willie Randolph, and Dave Winfield. “It ended way too soon,” says Don.

Some baseball players have memorable experiences off the field as well—both good and bad. Allen recalls when he flew to Florida to play the Marlins and figured it would be a good opportunity to catch up with family members who lived in the area. When it came time for the Cardinals pitcher to drive from their home to the game at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami Gardens, there was only one problem.

“We drove around in circles,” says Allen, who was scheduled to be the starting pitcher that day. After finally figuring out how to get to the stadium, Allen tried to explain to the security guards who he was. They didn’t buy it, so Allen sneaked in, made it to the locker room, and got dressed only to run into his manager, Joe Torre, minutes before the first pitch.

“You’re not starting,” was all that Torre said.

Allen eventually got to the mound that day as a reliever, and gave up the winning run to the other team. Then, says Allen, he got lost again driving back to his family’s home.

It was an incident, he says, that Torre joked about when the two were reunited on the 1999 Yankees. In addition to Torre, Allen continues to remain in touch with former teammates, including Derek Jeter, who works with the NYIT grad as part of the Yankee shortstop’s Turn 2 Foundation to promote programs that teach children and young adults about the dangers of drugs and alcohol.

Don, too, is active in educating young people and regularly returns to his alma mater to teach baseball clinics with Bob Hirschfield, head coach of the NYIT Bears. He also serves as a mentor to help kids build their confidence and self-esteem.

Growing up, Don says, he knew someday he would become a teacher. Not surprisingly, his favorite subjects at NYIT were sociology and psychology. “That really interested me, learning what motivates people,” he says. “That is essential for coaching and managing.”

After his final season in 1997, Ray also returned to his alma mater to serve as an NYIT baseball coach from 1999 to 2008. He is grateful to Coach Hirschfield for giving him the discipline and skills he needed as a player to compete in the big leagues.

“He’s a tough guy,” says Ray. “But I have a lot of respect for him. He makes you grow up real fast, so when I went to pro ball, it was an easy transition.”

Ray now handles sales for the Harry Krantz Company, a Long Island, N.Y.-based distributor of electronic components. He still keeps in touch with his former NYIT teammates and visits the Old Westbury campus to impart his wisdom to student-athletes.

In addition to playing alongside Allen on the ’95 Cards, Ray recalls a brush with another NYIT grad in the minor leagues, when he played a game against the Sarasota White Sox. The pitching coach for the other team, of course, was Don.

“Everyone knew him and praised him,” says Ray. “He’s one of the best.”

More Scoreboard

Spring 2009 Table of Contents