In the 1940s, Thomas Wolfe wrote a novel entitled You Can’t Go Home Again. The story was about a successful writer who returns home to find out that his family and neighbors have turned their backs on him after a novel he has written about his community has caused a great deal of ire and angst. Wolfe had received the entire idea from a conversation that he had with writer Ella Winter who rhetorically asked Wolfe, “Don’t you know you can’t go home again?” The sentiment that Winter was trying to portray is that you can’t return back to the place of your youth, the place where you received great glory and fame.
That may sound like sound advice, but one young man is proving that sentiment to be as far from the truth as possible. He is returning to his roots, and quickly garnering more success and adulation for his performance than he had in his prior time in the city of Wichita. That young man is Wichita Wingnuts starting pitcher Jordan Cooper.
It’s Easy to Be the Star and Just as Easy to Be the Goat
We live in a day and age when every action of an athlete is microscopically examined by analysts and writers. If you don’t believe that, just spend a Monday following NFL games watching, listening or reading to television, radio, or Internet reports and you will hear nonstop critiques of virtually every action that a player made the day before.
It is this kind of age that makes it a difficult challenge for any young man to decide that professional athletics is the pathway they would like to follow. That is especially true when you return to a location where you had great success at an earlier period in your life. Everyone remembers the prior success, and so it is often difficult to measure up to the glory that was once achieved. That has not been a problem for Jordan Cooper.
From the time that Jordan turned about four years old, baseball has been a huge part of his life. It wasn’t that he saw baseball as a career path, at least not at that time, but was really more about having something to do during the hot Kansas summers.
“It just started out as something to do with your friends. When you’re 4 or 5 you play T-ball throughout the summer. For me it started out as a social event, where you’re hanging out with your buddies, sleeping over at their house, getting up to play some games, traveling around in some tournaments. Eventually it escalated into ‘Hey, you’re pretty good,’ and I took it a little more serious and it grew from there.”
Jordan starred in three sports at Shawnee Heights High School in Tecumseh, KS. He would earn four letters in both baseball and basketball, as well as one in football. He was named to the All-City First Team as well as an All-State First Team honoree all four years at the school. He was even named a Louisville Slugger Preseason All-American in 2008. His success on the mound was quite extraordinary, even striking out 19 batters in a contest in 2008.
While his athletic performance was exemplary, Jordan was no slouch in the classroom either. He graduated in the top 10 percent of his class and was a member of the National Honor Society.
While having success in three sports, Jordan realized that baseball was the one where he had the greatest opportunity to continue playing sports. Scouts noticed this as well and, in 2008, the Boston Red Sox drafted the right-hander in the 17th round, opening his eyes to the possibility that he could be a professional baseball player one day.
“It got to a point where I was getting some letters in high school and I was being recruited by some people, and it became exciting. You just want to see how good you can make yourself, and that drive kind of keeps you motivated to keep pushing yourself, to get better and see how far you can take it. That has always been a dream of mine since I was a little kid to be a Major League baseball player, so can I get there was what I was driven to find out..”
The Calling Is There, But the Time Is Not Now
It was an exciting opportunity for Jordan Cooper when he was drafted by the Red Sox, but the right-hander was honest enough with himself to realize that he was not ready to start a professional career. Instead, he opted to attend one of the best college baseball programs in the country, Wichita State University.
“I don’t think I was ready for it at that time. I was glad I went to school and got to learn how to pitch, not just overpower people. When I started having some success that’s when it started to click like ‘Hey, you have a chance to keep playing for a long time.;”
Jordan would be a Shocker for two seasons, putting up numbers that clearly proved that his game could easily translate to the next level. In 2009, he posted a 2.78 ERA in 18 games, striking out 91 batters in 97.0 innings pitched. While those numbers were quite impressive, it was the fact that he walked just 20 batters that really stood out.
The next season, Jordan would be even better. He would win 10 games that year, and lowered his ERA to 2.01. He increased his innings pitched to 107.1 while still only walking 20. He threw 5 complete game and a shutout and it was clear that he had what it took. The Cleveland Indians agreed, selecting him in the ninth round of the 2010 amateur draft.
Making His Dream a Reality
At age 21, Jordan Cooper was about to see the dream of becoming a professional baseball player become a reality. After being drafted, the Cleveland Indians sent him to their Low-A team in Mahoning Valley, where he won five games in 14 starts and posted a 4.94 ERA.
Jordan spent the better part of his first three seasons in Single-A ball, moving to High-A Carolina in 2012. There he made 29 appearances, posting a 9-7 record with a solid 4.12 ERA. The Indians organization kept moving the right-hander up their system and by 2014 he had reached AAA-Columbus.
He made just two appearances there, but the next season he would split time between AA-Akron and AAA-Columbus. Combined, Jordan went 4-6 in 22 appearances with a 4.34 ERA. In 2016, he would make just four appearances between the two levels before the Indians decided to give him his release.
It was a tough beginning to the year, but if anyone thought that Jordan Cooper didn’t believe that he still had the right stuff to be a Major League pitcher one day, then they clearly did not understand the tenacity of this young man.
In May, Jordan joined the Kansas City T-Bones of the American Association, making 19 starts and posting a 4.90 ERA. It was a solid performance, but he knew he clearly had not demonstrated how good he could be. There were higher levels to his performance which simply hadn’t been reached yet.
Time to Prove Winter Wrong
In February of this year, the Kansas City T-Bones traded Jordan Cooper to the Wichita Wingnuts. With a new manager leading the club, Jordan did not seem to fit into the T-Bones’ plans, but GM Josh Robertson saw the former Wichita State star as the perfect addition to his starting rotation.
The Wingnuts had a lot of confidence that he could be a fixture in their rotation but, in his final tuneup before the 2017 American Association season began, he took quite a beating at the hands of the Winnipeg Goldeyes. It looked like Winter’s assessment to Wolfe may have had some validity to it.
However, when the lights came on and the season was underway, Jordan Cooper has been nothing short of brilliant. He has yet to allow a run to score in his two starts. That has covered a span of 13-innings in which he has allowed just 6-hits and 4-walks while striking out 13. He is currently first in the league in ERA, and truly enjoying this dream come true scenario.
“For me Wichita is closer to home. I am married and have an eight-month-old daughter, so I wanted to stay close to home. My wife’s family is in Newton. It was important to her to keep the baby close. Wichita has been the best team the past 10 years in this league, so it was good to join a program with this kind of culture and tradition. To come back here and pitch as I have early on has been better than I could have asked for. You want to contribute and feel like you are helping the team win, and I am glad I have been able to do that so far.”
Enjoying Every Moment
While he is having a great deal of success so far this season, he is in no way allowing this to inflate his ego. The right-hander clearly understands that baseball could turn on you quickly, and so he is taking a down to earth approach to each and every start.
“Baseball is humbling. You never our as good as you think you are and you’re never as bad as you think you are. As long as you can keep and even keel you will be okay. It’s realizing that sometimes you make good pitches and guys get hits, sometimes you get away with mistakes without them being crushed. I think just trying to stay in the middle, not too high or too low, is a real key..”
While enjoying the success he is having early on this season, what has really stood out for him is the relationships that he has built with his teammates. While truly loving to play the game, the part that draws him to the field every day are the 22 other guys in the locker room who he is blessed to call his friends and teammates.
“For me it’s the people that you play with. I spent a lot of time kind of thinking about this when I was out of affiliate ball. I didn’t necessarily miss baseball itself. True, I really missed moments of success that I had had on the field, but what I missed the most was the people that I played with, the good friends that I made over time. I’m here to play baseball, the competitiveness is what drives me to come back, but it is the people that you surround yourself with that you meet from all over the country that you enjoy the most. That is the part about baseball that I truly love.”
In fact, it is his teammates that drive him to perform each and every time that he takes the mound. He knows that they are counting on him, and wants them to know that when the ball is in his hand that he’s got their backs.
“I think it is important to be somebody who shows up to the field every day that teammates know that they can count on. Somebody you knew was going to take care of business. A guy who was going to put his best foot forward. I want to be that kind of starter each time I take the ball.”
Making It All Worthwhile
The Wichita Wingnuts are currently in first place in the South Division of the American Association, and that has been due to the performances of young men like Jordan Cooper. He is giving his team an opportunity to win each time he takes the mound, which is made even more special because he gets to do it under the eyes of the ones that helped to make this dream a reality.
“One of the things that I truly hold dearly is the fact that being a professional ballplayer has made my parents very proud. They spent a lot of hot summers watching me play and it’s really important to me that they are extremely proud.”
It is only a couple of weeks into the season, but Jordan Cooper is quickly proving that not only can a young man return home, he can create a new legacy that is even more glorified than the one he left in the rearview mirror. With the performance that he is providing each time he heads to the hill, no one should be surprised if that legacy includes the 2017 American Association Championship Title.
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA