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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS

Springboard

Cookson Might Land a Spot on Dodgers' Bench Because of His Power

March 17, 2001|JOHN KLIMA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Brent Cookson's long summers playing before nickel-beer night crowds in the minor leagues finally seemed over.

The outfielder was back in the major leagues in June 1999 for the first time in four years, the reward for an injury-plagued trip around baseball's bush leagues.

Through eight seasons and 10 organizations, Cookson established himself as a power hitter, yet a return to the majors had eluded him.

Finally, the call came.

Cookson, a Santa Paula native who played at Ventura College and Long Beach State, played five games for the Dodgers in a series at Oakland, getting a single off Kenny Rogers for his first major league hit since a 1995 stint with the Kansas City Royals.

The Dodgers came home after the series. Cookson left 300 passes for friends and family for his first game at Dodger Stadium. The small-town boy was about to make it big.

This time, the call never came.

The Dodgers signed infielder Craig Counsell and shipped Cookson back to triple-A Albuquerque. The slugger, who has 146 home runs in 10 minor league seasons, never even took batting practice at Dodger Stadium.

"That was tough," Cookson said. "It was the biggest disappointment of my baseball career."

It's not the first time the game has dared Cookson to quit. Though he averaged one home run per 10 at-bats the last two seasons at Albuquerque, Cookson has only 40 major league at-bats, a .150 batting average in 25 games, and no home runs.

A minor league survivor, Cookson isn't ready to give up. After splitting last season between Albuquerque and a team in Korea and recovering from season-ending surgery on his pinkie finger in August, Cookson re-signed with the Dodgers and received a non-roster invitation to spring training.

He needs a productive spring to get another call.

"I'm a guy who can sneak under people's noses," said Cookson, 31. "I'm not widely known, I'm cheap, I can step in and do a good job. I think the numbers warrant the opportunity.

"In this game, that's what guys fight for."

There might never be a better opportunity. The Dodgers lack right-handed hitting power off the bench.

Factor in the uncertain status of Gary Sheffield, and Cookson could find himself in the major leagues as a reserve outfielder if he has a strong spring.

"There's no doubt Cookson can help us on the major league level," said Rick Sofield, the Dodgers' minor league field coordinator. "He's a maniac RBI guy and a great situational hitter. This guy is a gamer. He's determined. I don't think he knows any other word."

Cookson, whose stint in Kansas City was cut short by an ankle injury, must prove he can consistently hit major league pitching and stay healthy. He has never had more than 277 at-bats in a season.

"You go into every spring telling yourself this is the most important camp of your career," Cookson said. "It really holds true this time. I'm in a good position. I'm in the right place at what I think is the right time."

While Dave Hanson, who had eight home runs in 121 at-bats last season, provides pop from the left side, the club auditioned several right-handed hitting outfielders.

Switch-hitter F.P. Santangelo hit only one home run and batted .197 in 142 at-bats.

Outfielders Bruce Aven, Shawn Gilbert and Geronimo Berroa combined to hit five home runs in 70 at-bats in August and September.

Aven, acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates in August, was placed on the 40-man roster and has the most major league experience. He figures to have the inside track.

Gilbert, a career minor leaguer who batted .333 with 14 home runs and 33 RBIs at triple-A Albuquerque, was invited to camp as a non-roster player. He hit one home run in 20 major league at-bats last season.

Berroa, who hit more than 20 home runs in three of his 11 major league seasons, was released.

That leaves Cookson to hit his way into a job. He has 39 home runs in 392 at-bats in the last two seasons at Albuquerque, including 28 homers in 277 at-bats in 1999.

"His power is legit major league," said Sofield, a former major leaguer. "He plays defense better than a lot of guys at [the triple-A] level and he doesn't get a lot of credit for it.

"The thing about Cookson is that he is a warrior. He's been around the block and he knows what he's got to do, which is play well in front of Jim Tracy and Kevin Malone. It's one thing to read a guy has power in the [organizational] reports, it's another to see it for yourself."

Cookson brings the best power numbers to the table, but plays with a question mark around his neck.

He must shed the label of minor league slugger and replace it with major league contributor.

"I've had to overcome some roadblocks," Cookson said. "Making it has never been easy. But you can either let it ruin you or you can let it motivate you."

The chance to play in Los Angeles might represent the last call of his major league career.

There's one simple moment he longs for. Just once, Cookson said he would like to touch them all in the major leagues.

"I can see myself hitting a home run in the big leagues," Cookson said. "It's not all I'd like to do in the big leagues, but it's something I'd like to get under my belt. I can count on all my fingers and toes all the guys I've played with who are in the big leagues now.

"And you can either say forget the game or can use it as motivation. And I am not done yet."

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