'Rocky' looks to fight his way to majors

SIDELIGHT

May 27, 1994|By Tom Keegan | Tom Keegan,Sun Staff Writer

The Orioles, an organization short on colorful characters, just welcomed one into the family.

John "Rocky" Coppinger, a 19th-round selection in the June 1993 draft, was signed shortly before the Wednesday midnight deadline for draft-and-follow players to a bonus of $200,000.

Coppinger, a hard-throwing right-hander from El Paso, Texas, has been called Rocky his entire life.

"My dad was a boxing fan, and when I was born, he said I looked like Rocky Marciano, all beat up and ugly," Coppinger said. "From then on, it's been Rocky. Nobody even calls me John anymore. My parents don't have any baby pictures of me because they said I was so ugly. I look a little better now."

Coppinger, 20, was drafted out of high school, but opted to pitch a year at junior college, figuring he could sweeten the bonus offer he said was roughly one-tenth of what he ultimately received. He went 11-1 with a 2.90 ERA for Hillsboro Junior College in Texas. He struck out 120 and walked 60 in 99 innings.

Coppinger, 6 feet 5 and 225 pounds, was signed late Wednesday night by scouts John Green, the son of New York Mets manager Dallas Green, and Ray Crone, who signed Ben McDonald and Arthur Rhodes.

Orioles scouting director Gary Nickels said Coppinger would have been taken in the second round of this year's draft had the Orioles not beaten the deadline and signed him.

"We felt it was important for us, particularly not having our first-round selection this year," Nickels said. "He's a quality pitcher with a very good fastball. On the fast gun, it's about 91, which translates to 86, 87 on the slow gun."

The Orioles lost their first-round selection to the Mets by signing free agent Sid Fernandez. They did not lose picks for signing Rafael Palmeiro, Chris Sabo and Lee Smith, because their previous clubs did not offer them salary arbitration.

Crone's scouting report on Coppinger read: "Throws like they used to."

"He's a throwback," Nickels said. "He's got the Jay Buhner-type haircut, and he's a workhorse type. He challenges with the fastball. He doesn't like to trick you. He just says, 'Here it comes, fellows. See what you can do with it.' "

Coppinger underwent knee surgery as a junior in high school and pitched with a brace during his senior season. He had a pinched nerve in his forearm shortly before last year's draft. After flying to Baltimore for a physical Monday, Coppinger received a clean bill of health from team orthopedist Dr. Michael Jacobs.

"Last year, I was playing with a knee brace, had a little arm problem in my last start and I was a little overweight, so I figured if I could work on all those things, I could do better for myself," Coppinger said. "I shed my knee brace, my arm did real well and I lost about 25 pounds."

And gained about $180,000.

Coppinger likely will be assigned to Bluefield after reporting to the June 6 minicamp in Sarasota, Fla., Nickels said.

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