It's not easy being the biggest target Rocky Coppinger: The imposing Orioles right-hander was always the guy everyone else wanted to beat, from age 5 through high school.

February 27, 1997|By Ken Rosenthal and Jason LaCanfora | Ken Rosenthal and Jason LaCanfora,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- "He was batting in the top of the first for the district championship, and we were playing at their field," said Rocky Coppinger's father, John. "This kid Gino was going to throw at Rocky right away, and the kids he went to school with had heard this."

"I was sitting with the scouts on the first base side. They threw right at his head, and as he ducked the ball hit him in the right elbow and he had to pitch that game. All hell broke loose. I was going to kill their coach, and I'm not usually like that."

"He hit cleanup, and apparently in the two games before, he got hit five times by opposing pitchers," said John Green, the Orioles' scout who signed Coppinger. "His father had enough of that and started going crazy. I sort of sidled up next to him and just listened."

"It was a big game," Rocky said. "I was a pretty good hitter in high school. I'd killed 'em all year. He threw the ball, and I started bailing out. I was halfway out of the batter's box. And he still hit me on the back of my pitching arm. I kind of walked toward the mound. I thought maybe a fight was going to happen.

"My dad, I thought he was going to kill their coach. It was kind of weird, different. I just went to first base. The umpire told me if I charged the mound, I'd get thrown out. My dad was up against a fence. He always stood away, usually in the outfield. He never said a word, except that day."

"I'll never forget Rocky yelling at me from first base," John Coppinger said. "He said, 'Dad, I'm all right, don't worry about it.' I said, 'When you have a kid, you will worry about it.' My heart was racing, and I had to apologize to the scouts. They said, 'That's your kid, you do what you have to do.' "

"Ever since I've known Rocky, he's always been huge, and he was mean, too," said Mike Beltran, a coach of a rival high school in El Paso, Texas. "He was considered a real villain when he came to other parks. He was so good at every sport, the parents resented it. They could see how big he was. They would check his birth certificate."

"He's been in the spotlight since he was 5 years old," John Coppinger said. "He was always the center of attention. A lot of people wanted to knock his head off. Teams, parents and players always wanted to beat him."

"We had a good team, which added to the fire," Rocky said. "I was kind of arrogant in high school. I kind of drew some of the attention to myself. People didn't like me, for some reason. I'm sure I talked trash once in a while, like all high school kids.

"When I would lose a game, it was like losing in the World Series. People would get all pumped up. I think it was more jealousy toward our team. Plus, our high school was stereotyped as the stuck-up school. I wasn't one of 'em [Coppinger's father is a truck driver; his mother is a secretary], but it was where all the doctors and lawyers lived. Everyone hated us because of that."

"You could hear it in the stands," Green said. "I wasn't there for a lot of games, but I did hear it a little bit when Rocky came in high and tight to their children. They didn't like it very much, either. Rocky was one of the bigger kids around El Paso, and they thought he was pushing their boys around."

"He would get on his own players from the mound," Beltran said. "A lot of the time parents thought he was being a hot dog or thought he shouldn't be doing it, but that's leadership. Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale had it. I don't see anything wrong with it. Sometimes the game comes down to macho confrontations."

"Rocky was kind of the king of El Paso," Green said, "but they knew if they could get to him mentally -- he was the best pitcher and the best hitter, he was quite a hitter -- they had a chance to beat that club. They did what they could to intimidate him, and as they found out, he was un-intimidatable."

"It was tough. It was tough for both my dad and my mom," Rocky said. "People were always out to get me. When they did get me, I made sure my parents knew about it. I felt bad for my dad. It wasn't fun for myself, either. There was so much pressure. It was kind of a tense couple of years for us."

"The last game of his high school career, I stopped him in the house and said, 'I never really told you this before, but I really could never enjoy watching you play ball,' " John Coppinger said. "I'll never forget it. He stopped in his tracks and said, 'I didn't enjoy it either, Dad.' "

"It's a lot easier for me now," Rocky said. "I'm not the center of attention, especially on this team. You can get lost in the crowd. I enjoy that. And I've got a little bit of an advantage. When I pitch in Yankee Stadium and they call me bad names, talk about my mother all the time, it wouldn't be the first time."

"We think now that it must have been a tremendous benefit to go through that," John Coppinger said. "It turned out to make him thick-skinned. That was one of the ways I looked at it. He always came away on top. All the pressure was on him, but he weathered the storm."

"If you go back there now, he's a lot more respected than he was then," Green said. "Now, a lot of the coaches in the area are proud he's from El Paso. It's funny. Now they're all very receptive to him and talk about him like he's a local hero. I guess that's what happens."

"Maybe the Lord looked after him. Maybe now it's his time to enjoy it," John Coppinger said.

"I know it is mine."

Pub Date: 2/27/97

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