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Open Mike Column: Cooper pays back WNY baseball legend Burnside with ultimate gift

In a photo taken last year, Bob Burnside (left) sits with his former player and the current Eden baseball coach, Eric Cooper. (File photo courtesy of David Eckhardt)
In his 45 years of involvement in and dedication to the baseball program at Eden, Bob Burnside has become a legend in the sport in Western New York and staple in the Raiders’ program. In the process, he’s helped cultivate many young ballplayers at the school into men.

One of them is Eric Cooper, who became the varsity head coach at Eden after Burnside retired from teaching math and running the baseball program in the district. Burnside can be thankful for his own well-being that he did such a good job with helping develop Cooper in and away from the game.

A trained EMT as well as a teacher and coach at Eden High School, Cooper gave the ultimate gift back to his mentor and former coach when he helped save Burnside’s life at the conclusion of a game last week.

“He’s the heart and soul of Eden baseball,” Cooper said of Burnside, who after two years as a JV coach, headed the varsity for 33 seasons, which included winning sectional titles in 1995 and 2002. “He may be demanding and is a perfectionist, but the relationship he’s forged with the kids over the years, you could see it in their eyes the other night when they knew something very serious was happening.”

Burnside is still a fixture at the Eden diamond, serving by Cooper’s side as a volunteer coach for the past decade, and remains a mentor to the young men like he once was for Cooper.

Behind the scenes, he’s not only generous with his time ­— taking student-athletes out for meals and to baseball and hockey games, but also his money. With all sports programs suffering from a lack of funding, Burnside’s been the one who’s bought the beautiful button down uniforms on the backs of the Eden ballplayers. He’s also donated equipment for the baseball program.

“In an era where it’s cut, cut, cut, he’s the guy that steps up and says the boys have to have this stuff and I’m willing to donate and buy it,” Cooper said. “We do have a couple of other generous contributors, but you don’t get a lot of individuals that are like that. He’s been the one consistent guy, even back when I played.”

Burnside’s meaning to Eden baseball is bigger than just being a link to the past. He recently had an athletic award named after him last year and was blown away by the honor, but in typical Burnside fashion, the first thing he said was that it was not necessary.

“He’s the behind-the-scenes guy who tells you I’ll give you what you need to get the job done. That’s the kind of guy he is,” Cooper said. “He loves working with the kids, he loves imparting his knowledge.”

That connection he’s formed within the baseball program and its former and current players made the incident involving Burnside that much scarier.

After Eden worked a walk to score the winning run in the seventh inning of a tied game with Cleveland Hill, Cooper headed back from coaching third base toward the bench area where he saw Burnside slumped over against the fence.

Cooper ran over to Burnside and looked for a pulse, but couldn’t find one, so he relied on his EMT training and commenced CPR. Kevin VanRemnen, the umpire that day, Cleveland Hill coach Dan Polino and Eden’s trainer were all in close vicinity to assist.

“The strangest thing, within two minutes, his eyes flickered and he looked up at me and asked, ‘what happened?’ It kind of blew me away. No one has ever done that when I was performing CPR on them,” Cooper explained.

Burnside was alert and conscious when he was carried off the field. Doctors now say there was an issue with his pacemaker. After two procedures, he was released from the hospital over the weekend. Cooper said Burnside also banged up his knee so his former coach had to be admitted for rehab.

Cooper is just glad he was able to help and now will have some good news to share for the rest of the season with the many interested in hearing about Burnside’s condition.

“We haven’t been to a game yet where somebody — whether it’s umpires, former coaches, players — hasn’t come up to us and asked, ‘how’s coach doing?,” Cooper said. “That’s a testament to his longevity and people seeing him around the fields for a long time.”

For the kids watching the incident, it was quite shocking so Cooper held a few team meetings to speak about it. He said his players have responded very well mentally and on the field, posting a 7-3 mark in the division by winning six of their last seven.

“I don’t know that he’ll be back before the end of the season, but for all intense and purposes for what he’s been through, it’s a miracle that he’s coming out of the hospital,” Cooper said. “He’s still in good spirits.”

Cooper admits it would be a boost for players to see him back on the field, although Burnside must focus on getting better. But based on his track record, you know Burnside will want to get back soon to where he’s been comfortable for so long— in an Eden dugout.


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