CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Like his friend Sidney Ponson is now, two years ago Rocky Coppinger was the new kid on the Orioles' pitching block.
He took a lightning-like route through the organization, arriving in the majors in June 1996, less than two years after launching his career in rookie ball at Bluefield.
Single-A. Double-A. Triple-A. No problem for the rampaging big guy from Texas who averaged more than a strikeout an inning after the Orioles beat the deadline to sign him out of the 1993 draft.
The successes piled up in Baltimore in 1996, when the rookie won 10 American League games and became only the second Oriole to capture his first five decisions. He also beat his boyhood idol, Roger Clemens, and defeated the Cy Young Award winner, Pat Hentgen, in a key last-series game.
At age 22, Coppinger was on top of the baseball world.
"There I was, so young, in the middle of a major-league pennant race," he reflected earlier this week. "I went out there every time thinking this might be the last time. I won some big games.
"Sometimes, I wondered if I was ready for that, if I was doing the right things. It was a lot to throw at me, but I learned a lot, too."
Then, it all came crashing down.
In 1997, Coppinger began to learn the humbling side of baseball.
Inflammation in his right shoulder sent him to the disabled list before spring training ended. After five appearances, he was put on the DL again with soreness in his right elbow. Then it was back to the minors.
Amid his physical problems, Coppinger had numerous disagreements with management that became public.
"I took out my frustrations and said some things I shouldn't have to the wrong people," he says now.
The recovery period began almost a year ago, when Dr. James Andrews performed elbow and shoulder surgery on Coppinger in Birmingham, Ala., on Aug. 22, 1997.
By June, he was back pitching for Bowie before advancing to Rochester, where he is now performing like the Rocky of old.
"Last year was crazy. I'd just like to forget it," he said. "But it made me a better person and I learned to take care of myself better."
In the interim, Coppinger got married. He now has a daughter and another daughter on the way.
"Now, if I have a bad game, there is always my little daughter waiting for me to brighten up things," he said. "There is no substitute for that.
"I can't really take baseball as dead seriously as I used to. I'm definitely looking at life in a different perspective. Maybe at age 24 I'm already having my mid-life crisis," he said, jokingly.
There is no doubt he is almost back to the form of his youth. He is 5-2 with the Red Wings with a 3.72 ERA and is confident he is throwing well enough to earn a September call-up.
"Rocky has worked very hard and has gassed the ball right by a lot of people in this league," Rochester manager Marv Foley said. "He had won four in a row, and his velocity is back to where it should be.
"He's still got a ways to go, but his changeup and breaking ball are a little more consistent, and he's getting there."
The only visible sign of Coppinger's past rebellion is the bleached-blond surfer hair that is chic among some young players now.
"That's just a little drastic change," said Coppinger, who also is trying to keep his weight down after a two-week stay in January at Duke's University's Diet and Fitness Center.
Coppinger believes he is close to having major-league stuff again and would relish a return to the Orioles.
"I think I'm throwing good enough and have good enough numbers," he said. "Of course, I'm hoping to go to the big leagues. If I didn't, I shouldn't be here."
As for Ponson -- now in the Orioles' rotation -- Coppinger is rooting hard for his 21-year-old buddy. But he knows what can happen.
"We'll see next year how it goes for him," Coppinger said. "I believe the sophomore jinx got me. He's still got to face it."
Pub Date: 8/15/98