Covering the draft can be a grind. After a while, all the players start to bleed together, becoming just a series of stat sheets and grainy prospect videos. But once in a while, you get lucky and a player jumps out at you. For me, that player was Billy Cooke, when I found this:
And then this:
(The disappointed announcer voice in that second one is just perfection.)
Oh but then he can also do this:
Billy Cooke's 2 run dinger in the bottom of the third inning pic.twitter.com/IuCnpoLYwe— Coastal Baseball (@CoastalBaseball) April 9, 2017
Cooke lost basically his entire freshman season to a broken bone in his hand, but rebounded as a sophomore to hit .324 and steal 27 bases. That offensive performance moved him from the bottom of the lineup into a leadoff spot this year, where he excelled, earning Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year after slashing .353/.479/.587, with 10 home runs and 21 stolen bases. But I think what impressed me most when reading or watching interviews with him is how much he genuinely loves baseball. Billy was nice enough to answer a few of my questions about his background and shed light on what, exactly, a chanticleer is.
You seem to be a real "baseball rat," someone who eats, breathes, and sleeps the sport. When did you know baseball was your "thing"? Do you have any particularly impactful early experiences you can remember?
Baseball has always been my thing ever since I was little. But I really started getting into baseball at the start of my freshman year in high school. What really drove me was the fact that I actually didn't make the cut for a prestigious summer ball team in the spring tryout that freshman year. I wasn't good enough. And, in a way, I was glad I didn't make it, looking back at it now. That gave me a wake up call and I knew I had to step up my game. I ended up trying out again in that fall, made the team, and we eventually won the biggest tournaments in the travel ball ERA, the WWBA National Championship in 2013.
You're a Florida kid, from outside Orlando, right? Florida is rich with college baseball; what made you choose Coastal Carolina?
Coastal Carolina has always been a prestigious program, and what I enjoyed the most when I visited was the coaches, the environment, and the new stadium that was in the process of being built. I fell in love with the place.
Since your arrival at CCU, the baseball program has taken a huge step forward, culminating in their first national title last year. Six players were drafted this year, with you being the first from this class taken. What is so special about being a Chanticleer? (Related question: what exactly is a Chanticleer?)
I think what is special about being a Chant is the brotherhood and family that you grow with and have for the rest of your life. Every single day is a grind with your teammates out there, and having guys that have your back no matter what is one of the best feelings in the world. A Chanticleer is actually a fighting rooster! Pronounced "SHON-ti-Cleer" and Chants "Shonts."
Speaking of famous alums, Mariners utilityman Taylor Motter is a former Chanticleer. Have you had any contact with him? I would hope he has sent you a message.
I have not spoken with him personally, but he's a busy guy!
Were you able to still develop your game even while being sidelined? What did you learn from that experience?
After breaking a bone in my hand, I was only out for two months and was sort of a defensive replacement for the rest of the spring season when I returned. So, even though I missed time, I was still able to lift weights, stay in shape, and learn from the older guys and watch them play. Being injured has to be one of the worst feelings in the world, because of the fact you can't help the team compete and win games.
While your offensive performance from last year to this year has been pretty consistent as far as average and OBP, you leapt forward 150 points in your slugging %, crushing 10 home runs this year, after hitting just three last year. Has anything in particular contributed to this power surge? I know you put in a lot of extra work in recovering from your injury.
I spent a lot more time in the cages this past year getting in swing reps and getting ready for games. I never really changed anything with my swing, however. I don't think it was "extra" work, but it was more specific work; having a game plan of what I need to accomplish in there day in and day out. I definitely made up some time that summer in summer ball in the Valley League with the Charlottesville Tom Sox. That time really helped me just focus on baseball and catching up on all I missed. It was also a great environment, friendly people, and a good all-around atmosphere!
You're a weapon on the basepaths, swiping 20 or more bags in each of your last two years. What's your philosophy when stealing a base?
You can't be scared to get thrown out! As soon as you think that, it becomes a timid mindset, and your chances of getting thrown out are much higher! Whenever I go to steal a base, I know for a fact I'll be safe no matter what. I have had my fair share of being thrown out, too. It's also good to know the pitcher's time to the plate, and how good the catcher is. Scouting reports are HUGE.
Even while bringing plus speed and offense, you provide strong defense, too. While at CCU, you've made a few highlight-reel catches. Do any of them stick out to you in particular? Why?
I can remember two in particular. My catch at Georgia Tech last year was something special, receiving #1 Top Ten Play honors on Sportscenter, and also this past spring, I made a catch at South Alabama that potentially saved the game. (Ed note: these are the two plays embedded at the top of this article.)
Pitchers love pitching in front of you, knowing how you have them backed up defensively. I believe on Twitter they called it "the Billy Cooke effect." How does that shape your approach when playing in center field? How do you view the importance of outfield defense?
Defense wins games! I take so much pride in my defensive ability out there. The best feeling in the world is picking up your guy on the mound with a nice catch that saves runs. They love you for that stuff!
After years of having big-slugging but less-athletic outfielders (hello Seth Smith), Seattle has moved towards a model of rangy, speedy, athletic outfielders. How do you see yourself fitting in with this model? Do you have any particular player you model your game on?
I would hope I fit right in! Whatever the Mariners want me to do, I'll be more than happy to do it.
Have you always been nicknamed "cookie"? IMPORTANT QUESTION: What is the best cookie?
The cookie reference came up last year as a sophomore, and it sort of stuck. I always bring a little stuffed animal "Cookie Monster" with me when I play, because my mother got it for me and I know I have a little piece of her when I have Cookie Monster with me. And I like any cookie! That's why I am the Cookie Monster!
How did it feel to get drafted?
It's a real blessing to be drafted! I am very thankful for the opportunity and for the Mariners! A lot of hard work and dedication pays off.
Do you know anything about Seattle? Have you ever been out here? If not, what comes to mind when you hear "Seattle"?
I have never been on the West Coast before, so it'll be a first time experience for sure. All I know about Seattle right now is the Mariners, the Space Needle, and rain! Lol.