Rookie to pitch vs. boyhood hero Coppinger vs. Clemens is tale of two Texans

July 06, 1996|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

Get ready for the "Rocket" vs. "Rocky."

That is the intriguing pitching matchup today at Camden Yards when impressive Orioles rookie Rocky Coppinger takes the mound against his boyhood idol, Boston's Roger Clemens.

It will be an early milestone in the promising career of Coppinger, who zoomed through the organization's minor-league system to become a member of the Orioles' rotation in less than two years.

"I'm excited about it," said Coppinger. "Roger was a real idol to me just because of the way he goes after guys. He knocks people down once in a while. I kind of try to take after him."

These two sturdily built Texans are separated primarily by age.

Clemens, who grew up in the Houston area, is nearly 34 and on the downside of a brilliant career that has included three Cy Young Awards and four ERA titles. During the late 1980s and early '90s, there was no more feared pitcher in the game than Clemens.

But he hasn't won since May 23 against the Oakland Athletics, absorbing three defeats and four no-decisions in his past seven starts.

Coppinger is 22 with five major-league starts behind him and seemingly a world of accomplishment ahead of him. Two summers ago, he was in rookie ball in Bluefield, W.Va., a place he said "I was very happy to get out of."

But they are both power pitchers, and Coppinger, a native of El Paso, one day wants to be viewed as a Clemens-type force.

So far, the big leagues have not awed Coppinger, and he hopes to keep on course today despite the presence of Clemens.

"With the lineup we've got, I can go out and not worry about anything," Coppinger said. "My concern is not Roger, but Mo Vaughn, Jose Canseco and the rest of them."

Clemens grew up with an eye on another Texan of renown, Nolan Ryan.

"I watched him a lot for his leg drive and some special things that Nolan did," Clemens said.

"Then, when I got to the big leagues, I matched up with him two or three times. Each one was very special."

Coppinger said he has seen Clemens pitch only once.

"I was on a recruiting trip to [the University of] Texas and I got to see Roger pitch in an alumni Coppinger game," Coppinger said. "The traditional first pitch was over the guy's head. That was impressive."

Clemens is 6 feet 4, 230 pounds, Coppinger 6-5, 245, and both have strong legs and wide torsos.

Both count their fastball and slider among their better offerings.

"I think he's got a tough forkball, and I throw a changeup more often," Coppinger said. "Otherwise, we throw similar pitches."

Evaluating his performance so far, Coppinger said, "Overall I'm happy."

But he still is a little dizzy over "how fast this has gone. I never thought I'd get here so quickly. I sure am enjoying it."

This will be the third nationally televised game that Coppinger has appeared in during his young career, and this time -- in only his second start at Camden Yards -- he faces the pitcher he dreamed of becoming.

"We've got the same agent [Alan Hendricks, of Houston], and maybe Sunday, when this is all over and done, I can get together with Roger and talk," Coppinger said.

"That would certainly be another highlight."

Orioles today

Opponent: Boston Red Sox

Site: Camden Yards

Time: 1: 05

TV/Radio: Ch. 45/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Red Sox's Roger Clemens (3-7, 4.02) vs. Orioles' Rocky Coppinger (3-0, 4.62)

Tickets: Fewer than 100 remain

Pub Date: 7/06/96

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