FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- He is wearing uniform number 72 this spring, a football lineman's number, which is appropriate for Rocky Coppinger.
"He's a big sucker, isn't he?" said Orioles catcher Gregg Zaun, who, like a lot of folks, is getting his first look at the young right-handed pitcher rising in a hurry through the Orioles' organization.
Fact is, Coppinger, 21, was a tight end as well as a pitcher as a high schooler in El Paso, Texas, where major colleges were recruiting him to play football. Yet there was never a doubt which sport Coppinger would choose.
"My dad lived, ate and breathed baseball, and I got it from him," he said in the clubhouse yesterday before a morning workout at Fort Lauderdale Stadium. "I caught a lot of [football] passes in high school, but baseball was always the way I was going to go."
The Orioles are pleased about that. In his first full pro season in '95, he went 16-3 with a 1.97 ERA in 187 combined innings at
Frederick, Bowie and Rochester. A power pitcher in the Doc Gooden mold, he should make it to Baltimore soon.
"He's making some of my starters nervous right now," manager Davey Johnson said.
At 6 feet 5 and 225 pounds, with a 90-plus-mph fastballCoppinger is one of those players who acquires a legend long before he makes it to the majors. What a legend it is. Coppinger is a truck driver's son whose father nicknamed him Rocky at birth "because I was as ugly as Rocky Marciano."
Zaun took one look at his broad shoulders, big rump and loose gait and asked to catch him at the first workout Friday. Then he asked to catch him again on Saturday.
"I'd heard about him, and then seeing him, as imposing as he is, I wanted to see what the fuss was all about," Zaun said.
"He's for real," Zaun said. "A pleasure to catch. He throws hard, real hard. But he can throw it where he wants it. He's in the strike zone. He can sink his fastball. He's fun, lots of fun."
Farm director Syd Thrift, who has helped nurture Coppinger, finds him particularly fun.
"This is what it's all about," Thrift said. "He has a fastball, curveball and changeup, and has command of all three pitches, which is unusual for such a young pitcher. But then, he's special. He's got the ability and he's driven to make it to the major leagues."
It is because of football, oddly enough, that Coppinger likely will *make it to the majors as an Oriole. He was a top high school prospect who probably would have gone high in the draft, but he blew out his knee playing football and fell from favor with many scouts. The Orioles selected him in the 19th round of the '93 draft.
"Draft day is not a fond memory," Coppinger said. "It was my last day of high school. I was supposed to go high and no one called. It was depressing. The next day I didn't even wait around for the phone to ring. I was out running errands when the Orioles called. They left a message on the answering machine."
Coppinger had signed a scholarship letter-of-intent with the University of Nebraska several weeks earlier, but reneged because major college players aren't eligible for the draft again until they're juniors.
"I felt bad about backing out on Nebraska, but I wanted to get going [in the pros]," he said. "And I really didn't want to hassle with the draft again."
He spent a year at Hill Junior College in Texas, where he raised his value with a strong season and negotiated contract terms with the Orioles, who retained his rights until the next year's draft. He signed with the Orioles just hours before the deadline.
He has been rising with a bullet from the moment he signed. He went 4-3 in rookie ball in '94, then jumped from Single-A to Triple-A last year. Opponents batted .189 against him in Single-A and .188 at Double-A. He had a 1.04 ERA in five starts at Rochester.
"It's happening pretty quick," he said. "I'm trying to stay calm, but it's not easy. My goal is to at least crack the majors this year, whether it's out of spring camp or in September.
"I'm an impatient person by nature. But I have to be patient."
Yes, he does. The Orioles' rotation is set with the addition of David Wells and Kent Mercker. And it's probably still a little soon to expect Coppinger to produce in the majors. He still calls his parents after every start.
But the Orioles' great expectations for him are evident in their decision to bring him into camp as a nonroster player. They just want to look at him.
"Who doesn't?" Thrift said.
For now, thus, he is walking around with a lineman's uniform number.
$ That'll change soon.