Hair cut high and tight along with a noticeably looser demeanor, Rocky Coppinger looks like a guy who has had a weight lifted from his shoulders.
And his hips.
And his gut.
And just about any other place that sagged under the poundage of a ruinous 1997 season.
Rocky Coppinger, the Orioles' 10-game rookie winner in 1996, missed the Baltimore Express last season. Actually, he threw himself off the train as a jumble of raw rotator cuff, painful right elbow and a fractured personal life. One season after living large as the Orioles' out-of-nowhere No. 4 starter, Coppinger became too large.
"There were a lot of things I didn't handle well last year," Coppinger recalled after a recent morning workout at Camden Yards. "To be honest, I was scared. I knew I was hurt, but I didn't want to leave here."
So after reporting to spring training reluctant to cut loose his fastball, Coppinger talked his way off the disabled list April 15, appeared in five mostly forgettable games and said in Minnesota that manager Davey Johnson and pitching coach Ray Miller "panicked" when they rescued him from an April no-decision. Coppinger (1-1, 6.30 ERA in 20 innings) hung around until May 24 when he was found to have a sprained ligament in his right elbow. Days before the club had optioned him to Rochester.
Coppinger's season imploded when an attempted rehab was interrupted by rotator cuff and elbow surgery Aug. 22. He's still recovering.
"After the success I had in '96, I was scared of failing. You hear so much about the sophomore jinx and all that. I had never failed before in this game. People say it happens to everybody eventually. It got me last year," he said.
As his body failed him, so did his personal life. He became a father and a husband then soon after became divorced.
Overweight since suffering a knee injury in junior high school, Coppinger bloated to nearly 300 pounds over his 6-foot-5 frame. Some within the organization theorize his weight caused his mechanics to deteriorate, putting undue stress on his shoulder and elbow. (Coppinger says his shoulder bothered him before last spring, contributing to his elbow injury.)
Director of player development Syd Thrift suggested to majority owner Peter Angelos that the club send Coppinger along with hefty prospects Sidney Ponson and Calvin Pickering to Duke University's sports conditioning facility. The three attended for most of two weeks in mid-January. Coppinger emerged 15 pounds lighter and two inches thinner around the waist while Ponson and Pickering also experienced encouraging results.
Thrift theorized that Coppinger's weight problems were a reflection of poor self-image. One fed on the other until his career was in a free fall.
"Nobody has given up on Rocky. We didn't want him to give up on himself," Thrift said.
Coupled with an extended stay at his father's home in Texas, the visit to Duke appears to have restored Coppinger's balance.
"It's not so much about dropping weight quickly as it is learning how to eat and take care of yourself," said Coppinger, who now weighs around 260. "They're well aware of our lifestyle and how we eat at odd hours. It's a matter of knowing what to eat."
And perhaps what to say. Coppinger, who turns 24 next month, now sounds contrite over the disagreements he had with Johnson and Miller. As for his future with the club, he said, "I know there are people in the organization who don't think I have a chance, that I'm not a factor. I don't think like that. Last year I put all kinds of pressure on myself to stay here and it didn't work. It was pretty much a disaster. This year, no one's expecting anything. There's no pressure on me whatsoever."
The Orioles have put together a veteran rotation of Mike Mussina, Scott Erickson, Jimmy Key, Scott Kamieniecki and Doug Drabek. Indeed, Coppinger's name is rarely mentioned in projections for the upcoming season.
"I thought there was a strong chance I'd be going to an expansion team," admitted Coppinger, aware that he was left exposed for all three rounds.
Coppinger doesn't like to discuss a goal weight, though club officials believe 245 a realistic figure. Less than six months after undergoing double arm surgery, he also has yet to throw with maximum effort. That, too, will come in time.
"I got in trouble last year by not trusting anybody. Looking back on it, that was probably a mistake," he said. "I know what I can do. I'd like to do it for this team. Hopefully, they still believe in me here."
Pub Date: 2/04/98