After Rocky road, treat is a dream realized

June 22, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal

They waited for the boys Little League game to end, then piled into a minivan at 11 p.m. Wednesday, Rocky Coppinger's parents, his two younger brothers and grandmother.

The trip from El Paso, Texas, covered 2,000 miles and 30 hours of drive time, and when they pulled up to Camden Yards yesterday, Coppinger's mother, Mary, and grandmother, Sara, began crying.

"I had tears in my eyes, too," said Coppinger's father, John, before the Orioles' 9-3 victory over Kansas City. "It's kind of hard to figure, that your son had a job in this place."

John Coppinger is a truck driver, a native New Yorker who landed in El Paso after returning from Vietnam. Mary is a secretary at Rocky's alma mater, Coronado (Texas) High.

"It's like I'm in a dream," Mary said before the game. "I couldn't even describe how it feels. You hear about this place, then your son's playing here. It's just awesome."

Three years ago, John "Rocky" Coppinger was at Hillsboro (Texas) Junior College. Two years ago, he was the ace for the Orioles' Rookie League club in Bluefield, W. Va. Last year, he began the season in Single-A.

Alas, this real-life Rocky couldn't produce a Hollywood ending in his Camden Yards debut, departing with a 4-0 lead in the fourth inning after getting struck in his right leg by a line drive.

Coppinger, 22, suffered a bruise to his lower leg, just above the ankle. X-rays were negative, and he is expected to make his next start Wednesday in Texas.

"It scared me, but I knew he was OK," Mary said. "We're disappointed, but it's not anything he can help. He was pitching great. And we'll catch him in Texas on the way back."

It seems as though Coppinger reached the majors faster than it took his parents to drive from El Paso, and his rapid ascent is all the more gratifying to the Orioles, considering how close they came to losing him.

Coppinger was their 19th-round pick in the June 1993 draft, but he turned down a $20,000 bonus to attend junior college. The Orioles didn't sign him until May 25, 1994, just hours before he would have re-entered the draft.

Looking back, they were lucky nearly every step of the way of this "draft and follow," an unusual baseball practice in which clubs select a player out of high school, then spend nearly an entire year trying to sign him.

Scouts backed off the 6-foot-5, 250-pound Coppinger in high school for a variety of reasons. He was overweight. He underwent knee surgery as a junior. He suffered a pinched nerve in his forearm late in his senior year.

"And you can't ignore the fact he lived in El Paso," Orioles scouting director Gary Nickels said. "You had to come from Phoenix or Dallas to scout him. It's the last outpost of either territory. It's not a place you go through to go anywhere. You have to go there on purpose."

Orioles scout John Green went, rated Coppinger's fastball as "well above average," but recommended that the club draft him late because of all his physical questions.

Nickels took that gamble, but said he feared that Coppinger would accept a scholarship to Nebraska, a decision that would have delayed his re-entrance to the draft until this year.

Coppinger actually signed a letter of intent to attend Nebraska -- "They probably hate me by now," he said. "In fact, I'm almost sure they hate me" -- but he shrewdly chose Hillsboro instead.

That enabled the Orioles to retain his rights, and Coppinger to use the next draft as a bargaining chip. He then proved he could stay healthy an entire season, going 11-1 with a 2.90 ERA at Hillsboro.

As the '94 draft approached, the Orioles had special incentive to sign Coppinger -- they had lost their first-round pick after signing free agent Sid Fernandez. But Coppinger's price had risen -- he now was projected as a second-round pick.

Green, in his first year of scouting, remembers himself "chomping at the bit." Ray Crone, the veteran scout who had signed Ben McDonald, Arthur Rhodes and David Segui for the Orioles, also liked Coppinger after following him at Hillsboro.

"I remember seeing pretty much of an ideal prospect," said Crone, now a major-league scout with San Diego.

Which, in a sense, was the problem.

"I remember telling John [Green], 'When you go into something like this, when you walk in the door, you might get hit right between the eyes,' " Nickels recalled.

Green did.

According to Nickels, Coppinger asked for $300,000.

"He said, 'I'm going to be a pretty high pick if you don't sign me,' " said Green, the son of New York Mets manager Dallas Green. "Some [clubs] may have tampered with him, but he knew in his heart he deserved more than late-round money."

The negotiations lasted three days. Green and Crone set up headquarters at an El Paso motel, shuttling back and forth to the Coppinger home, making phone call after phone call back to BTC Nickels in Baltimore.

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