Twins star played in Austin

Published 6:43pm Saturday, May 12, 2012

An Austin woman is getting a Mother’s Day treat Sunday.

Pat Cooling is going to Target Field with a large group of family to watch former Southern Minny Star Josh Willingham play for the Minnesota Twins.

“I’m pretty proud,” Cooling said. “It’s just like one of my kids.”

Twins outfielder Josh Willingham rounds the bases at Target Field Wednesday. Before starting his Major League career, Willingham played for the Southern Minny Stars in Austin.

Willingham played for the Minny Stars in Austin in 1998 and 1999 — the team’s final two seasons when it was a collegiate summer team in the Northwoods League. Willingham and other players lived with Cooling — then Pat Peters — shortly after her first husband died and she was living alone.

During Willingham’s time in Austin, Cooling said she got to know him and Willingham’s wife, Ginger. She has since kept in touch.

She even talked of seeing pictures of the Willingham’s third son, Rogan, who was born last month.

“I feel like I’m part of the family almost,” Cooling said.

Cooling spoke highly of Willingham, saying she expects he’s become a leader on the Twins.

“Just a very polite guy,” she said. “All my guys were very special, but I think he stood out because of his upbringing: very southern.”

Cooling also talked proudly about the Josh Willingham Foundation, which raised more than $100,000 for tornado relief in Alabama when Willingham played for the Oakland A’s last season.

“He’s one special guy,” she said.

Willingham played mostly third-base during his time in Austin.

According to www.northwoodsleague.com, Willingham hit .275 with three home runs and 30 RBIs in 62 games in 1998. He hit .337 the next summer with five home runs and 24 RBIs in 28 games.

Willingham was a league all-start that year, but his playing time was limited due to an injury, according to Paul Spyhalski, an Austin attorney who Willingham briefly lived with in 1998. Willingham played for the Minny Stars between seasons playing shortstop at the University of North Alabama, and Spyhalski said local coaches were excited to land the slugger in Austin.

While Willingham wasn’t belting homers in Austin, Spyhalski said he had good gap and doubles power.

“You’d look at him and you could just tell that he was a natural hitter,” Spyhalski said.

After Willingham was drafted by the Florida Marlins, Spyhalski — who travels with his wife, Vickie, to many baseball stadiums — saw Willingham play in the minors and has seen him play in multiple big league stadiums.

The Spyhalskis have kept in touch with Willingham, and try to say after games when they can. Spyhalski described Willingham as a nice, down-to-earth person.

“Last year was the first year he didn’t call my wife ma’am after all these years,” he said.

Cooling called Willingham this week, but she won’t get a chance to talk to him before or after the game Sunday because Willingham has prior commitments.