is in his 19th season as head coach at Florida Atlantic University, where
he has compiled a record of 650-403-4. Overall, he has a record of 790-453-9 - a
.631 winning percentage - in 22 years. FAU has reached the NCAA regionals seven
times under Cooney, including each of the past four seasons. This is the third year
Cooney has offered his
thoughts on baseball - and other things - for CollegeBaseballInsider.com.
Sept. 12, 2005
Another Beginning, a New Beginning, Never
Today marks the first day of team practice for this new season.
Our friends at the NCAA have graciously allowed us a few weeks to practice
with the team as a group, interrupting the many hours they would instead be
spending in the library. We normally carve out three weeks in the latter part of
the semester for this segment, but I’ve chosen to start early this year.
Time spent on the field outside the team segment is relegated to small-group
instruction limited to four players at a time. This is a good opportunity for
coaches to instruct and fine-tune the skills of players, but in baseball,
nothing takes the place of game experience.
Despite restrictions against competing in the fall against other teams, the
resultant intra-squad games serve as the best available way to measure your
Since we have such a large number of returning players, I want to establish
an atmosphere conducive to finding the best lineup we can put on the field. Our
guys were smart enough to be accepted into a university, so I’m sure they are
bright enough to realize that being a year older doesn’t guarantee being a year
better. There will be competition for starting positions and key backups. Our
top two starting pitchers are pretty much set, but the third and fourth slots
are up for grabs. The bullpen should be solid with the closer’s role the only
set position, and a solid crop of arms set to battle for their spots.
I suppose, if the truth is told, one reason I want to start earlier is to
ease the hangover I still feel from last year’s NCAA Regional. We didn’t play as
well as we were capable, and the sour taste is still with me. I’m more anxious
to get our guys going in the right direction than at any time in recent memory.
There is a lot of potential for a great season with this team to continue our
tradition of success, and today we begin again.
Last Sunday, I had the pleasure to attend the wedding of former player Zack
Roper and his bride Carrie Fischer.
The reception was held at the Don Cesar Hotel on St. Petersburg Beach, a
place so fancy, I doubt Zack could even work there as a valet, let alone stay
there except as the husband of the bride.
It was a great day for everyone involved. At times it looked as if an FAU
alumni game would break out at any moment. Dickie Hart, Anthony Doudt, Mick
Celli, Regan Sammaniego, Joe Cali, Mrs. Dan Jackson and Jim Cooney did
their best to represent FAU in a positive manner. I left around 10 p.m., and
everyone was well behaved during that time.
I hate to admit this, but Zack was always one of my favorite players. He
played the game hard and with a fierce determination to succeed. After arriving
at Florida Atlantic as a third baseman from junior college, he willingly moved
to the outfield to make room for Paul Stryhas at third and then became one of
our best outfielders.
Zack’s first season was 1999, which proved to be an unbelievable year. We won
34 straight games, went 54-9 and were ranked as high as No. 8. As our right
fielder, Zack was the favorite of our student fans who packed the right-field
hill that season. After home wins, they would toss bottles of beer to Zack as he
ran towards the dugout. He kept them stacked in his locker as a display of our
success. (I learned this part after the season.)
We were tied in the ninth of a marathon, rain-delayed regional elimination
game against FIU when Mick Celli executed his only career sac bunt to move
Stryhas into scoring position. Doudt hit a screamer to right that was caught,
leaving Paul stuck at second with two outs. Roper stepped in and delivered a
double down the left-field line for the game-winner and sent us to the
The following year, we were back on the same scene. I remember having just
been eliminated this time by FIU. Zack was standing by third as our guys headed
for the bus.
He put his arm around me and said that he always dreamed of playing pro ball,
but wouldn’t trade his time in college baseball for anything.
I knew how he felt.
In the toast offered by the best man, Jim Cooney recounted a story that
showed Zach’s loyalty to a teammate and his respect for how we want the game
played. It was an intra-squad game in the fall of 1999, and Zack was back at
third base. We had a new JUCO player who had just crushed his third home run of
the fall off of sophomore Jim Cooney.
The new guy pimped the homer all the way around the bases. As he neared
third, Zack lit into him, letting him know you don’t act that way here -
especially towards a teammate.
Zack always seemed to have a nonchalant, sarcastic attitude toward life. I
sometimes got the feeling that he just wanted to look like a guy who was tough
and didn’t need anything. But he had lost his Mom in a tragic accident when he
was still young. I’m sure that loss had a greater impact than anything on the
way Zack approached life.
I always felt the truth was that Zack needed to have someone close in his
life. Carrie has provided that for him. They had dated in high school, but had
gone separate ways. After his baseball odyssey recounted in this diary last
year, Zack wound up with the Phillies in Clearwater. He was back home, and
somehow Carrie and he found each other again.
She is just what he was looking for.
Four years ago, September 11 found me on vacation with my family at my
in-laws’ farm in Loudon, Tenn. Jack and Hannah Parten have around 300 acres
overlooking the Tennessee River near I-75. It’s a beautiful place with rolling
farmland and a big old hill on the west side that offers a great view.
Jack and his son Richard have hay planted and spend some hard days during the
summer and fall cutting, raking, and baling hay. It needs to be done in good
weather and takes about five days. I was there to help with the last cut of the
I remember it was cool enough for a long-sleeve shirt, but as the sun rose
higher, it provided one of the most beautiful days I’d seen. Some people might
think riding a tractor all day might be boring, but I was a rookie, and the
views were great.
I was in the northwest field and each turn offered something beautiful to
see. Heading north, you could see the road and another field rising to the only
neighbor’s property and his white farmhouse. Turning left and rolling down to
the southwest, you could see our trailer and the big hill with baled hay and
pine trees framing the western end of the farm. Due south and in the distance
was the Tennessee River. When I turned east, the Interstate bridge loomed in the
distance, with the barn and the Parten farmhouse off to the left.
How many times I sang Kenny Chesney’s “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” I
don’t know, but it was a peaceful morning. Even the most cynical person taking
in the beauty that was that morning would be moved to admit that there is a God
in our lives. Nothing this beautiful could happen by accident.
On one of my turns to the west, I saw Mary Beth running towards me from the
trailer. I hoped it was a visit related to the song in my mind, but as I got
down from the tractor, I could see it in her face. Something was wrong;
something that no one will ever forget.
The rest of the day was one of questioning. Back on the tractor, I asked God
the same questions millions of others did that day. I don’t think there are any
When I got back home, I met with our players and talked about what happened.
Most of them had already planned on giving blood - anything to help, in a
We talked about war, and the part they might have to play. It was an
The following year, I started playing a song before each game, as our players
were introduced. Our players today probably think it’s played because it’s by
“The Rising” was one of a number of songs written by an artist whose home
county in New Jersey lost more people that day than any other county in the
state. That year was one marked by too many funerals.
“Empty Sky,” “You’re Missing,” “Paradise”
are songs whose genesis was
that beautiful September morning that turned so tragic.
The words and images of The Rising make it more than just a song to
me. It is about something we will never be able to forget.
Can’t see nothin’ in front of me
Can’t see nothin’ coming up behind
I make my way through this darkness
I can’t feel nothing but this chain
that binds me
Lost track of how far I’ve gone
How far I’ve gone, how high I’ve
On my back’s a sixty pound stone
On my shoulder a half mile of line
Left the house this morning
Bells ringing filled the air
Wearin’ the cross of my calling,
On wheels of fire I come rollin’ down
My mind always turns to the image of the NYFD racing toward those buildings
as the alarms sounded and the photograph of the fire fighter going up the
stairwell as everyone else walked past him - and down to safety.
Sky of blackness and sorrow
Sky of love, sky of tears
Sky of glory and sadness
Sky of mercy, sky of fear
Sky of memory and shadow
Your burnin’ wind fills my arms
Sky of longing and emptiness
Sky of fullness, sky of blessed life
Come on up for the rising
Come on up, lay your hands in mine
Come on up for the rising
Come on up for the rising tonight
I’ve never looked at a beautiful sky the same since that September day. My
prayer is that thousands laid their hands in the hands of God and rose up that
This song will always be played for all those who remember that day.
Deja vu all over again (9/1/05)
(photo courtesy of FAU Media Relations Office)