Rob Cooper will be engulfed by familiarity this week.
There will be visits to old haunts. There will be hugs and high fives and old stories with scores of warm, friendly faces, each celebrating a local boy done good.
Cooper is in his fourth season as Penn State’s baseball coach and calls State College, Pa., home. But home is really here, the 916. It’s where Cooper discovered sports, where he found lifelong friends and a support group to help him cope with the searing grief of family loss. And it’s where Cooper will conclude his reunion/baseball tour this week.
Penn State ends a three-game series at Pacific in Stockton on Monday night, visits UC Davis on Wednesday, then plays three times at Sacramento State.
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“Rob Cooper gets it,” said Paul Carmazzi, one of Cooper’s coaches at Sacramento City College in the early 1990s. “At every level, he’s mastered it. He’s earned everything by working hard for it. Just an outstanding person and coach. He values the relationships in his life, knows how much they helped, and his coming back this week is a way to thank so many people. Can’t wait to see him.”
The one person Cooper would like to thank the most will not attend any games. His father, Bob, died of a heart attack while jogging in 1986. It happened the night before the last day of Cooper’s freshman year at El Camino High School. A gregarious, reflective sort, Cooper said he feels that loss every day. He honors his father by talking about him, by remembering him.
“A complete shock, and it still bothers me,” Cooper said. “He got me into baseball. He shared it with me, coached me. We were best friends. It’s been hard throughout the years, and you feel it as you get older. It was a big void for me. I was 15, a stage in my life where I was trying to figure out who I was, and we lost him.”
Cooper paused, then continued.
“I think he’d be proud. He’d eat this all up. He’d literally be in heaven with what I’ve been able to do: married (to Maureen), two sons (Jake and Tyson), baseball coach, helping people, doing the right things.”
Cooper will take his sons, ages 13 and 15, to his father’s grave in Sacramento on Tuesday. Then he’ll take the boys to the Del Paso Eastern Little League baseball field that bears their grandfather’s name. The Cooper boys never got to meet their grandfather, but they sure know their grandmother. Cooper’s mother, Kathy, jokes, “I’m the white-haired lady always surrounded by kids!” Kathy spends up to three months a year in the East to be a mother and grandmother, and she’ll attend every game this week, cheering as she did when her only son was a player.
“My mom, my sister Renee – I’m so lucky,” Cooper said of their impact. “And I was fortunate to have so many male figures in my life growing up, coaches and good people like Frank Calcagno, my high school coach, and Rich Nichols, my American Legion coach, and Paul Carmazzi and Jerry Weinstein at Sac City. Without those guys, I don’t know. When my dad died, I relied heavily on my friends and coaches and my family to chase my dreams.”
Cooper wasn’t a star at any level, but “no one worked harder,” Carmazzi said. Cooper offered to stay home after community college as emotional support for his mother, but Kathy Cooper wouldn’t hear of it. She wanted him to go away to college, to grow.
“He’d worry about money or something, and me being the mother, of course, I wanted the best for him,” Kathy said, adding that she’s indebted to her son’s coaches. “I had complete trust and faith in them. I trusted them when Rob was 8 or 9 years old attending their Sac City youth camps. We’re so blessed to have them in our lives.”
Cooper is so close to his mother that he eagerly agreed to speak at her Carmichael Kiwanis Club on Wednesday. The topic, naturally, will be of family, faith, fair balls and foul poles.
“That’s classic!” Carmazzi said upon learning the news.
And Cooper is so close to Carmazzi that they are godfathers to each other’s children.
“You don’t ask anyone to do that unless it’s really special, and it is,” Carmazzi said. “His mom was a great role model. The fact that Kathy trusted the men in Rob’s life not to replace his dad but to help him along with his growth and learning, we’re honored. I remember when his dad would come to our youth camps to watch Rob. ... Yeah, he’d be really proud.”