FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- As a rookie three years ago, he was a 10-game winner and an apparent fixture in the Orioles' starting rotation. Two years ago, he was injured and unhappy, his fade coming gradually. And last spring, he vanished after pitching in two exhibition games.
Now, after a season spent mostly in the minors following shoulder and elbow surgery in August 1997, Rocky Coppinger is trying to bring his career full circle and regain a job with the Orioles.
He's made an early statement in the eyes of manager Ray Miller, who watched Coppinger throw earlier this week and said it was the best he had looked in three years.
"I hope it carries on," Miller said. "He threw everything right at the knees and hard, and he had a good changeup. That's just on the side, but that was a good, solid, consistent 12 minutes. If you can take that into a game, then you've got something."
Though fearful of jinxing himself, Coppinger said, "I think this is the best my arm's felt in a long time. It feels better than in '96. I've heard it takes a good year, year and a half to come off surgery and that's right about where I'm at. It feels loose, fluid, like a young arm again. Like back in high school when you could throw all day."
Coppinger, who turns 25 next month, made seven appearances at Double-A Bowie and 14 at Triple-A Rochester last season, going a combined 10-5 and striking out 94 in 118 1/3 innings. He appeared in six games with the Orioles after a September call-up, including one start, when he allowed four runs in five innings.
"It was a struggle," he said. "There were times I went out and didn't feel good. Finally, toward the end of the year, I started doing well and they gave me a chance to pitch in the big leagues again. That's when my arm really took off. It felt like my fastball was coming back. I never thought I'd throw 94 mph again, but now I feel like I could."
Coppinger's maturity has been an issue since he broke into the majors, with his publicized run-ins with former manager Davey Johnson in '97 doing as much damage to his career as his injuries and weight. He seems to have them all under control now.
"It seems like he's much more mature now," Miller said.
Said Coppinger: "I screwed up when I was younger, arguing with the manager. I've dug some graves I shouldn't have dug. That's something I've learned, not to worry about the things you can't control and just go about your business. Go out and do what you've got to do."
And in whatever role is available. Miller said the Texas native could earn a job as a starter or reliever, depending on circumstances. "He's one of the people who would be an option, who could force his way in."
"There's no bad place to pitch in the big leagues," Coppinger said, "whether you're a starter or a reliever. I'm here to do whatever they need to help the team. I've pitched in the minor leagues before and done well, and now I hope it's my turn to put my health problems behind me and get on with my career in the big leagues."
Cuba trip update
Time appears to be running out on the Orioles' plan to play a home-and-home series against a team of Cuban all-stars, but negotiations apparently remain alive between the U.S. State Department and Cuban government officials.
According to a baseball source, the situation now is in the hands of the two governments. Major League Baseball already has given tacit approval to the venture and the Major League Baseball Players Association has given no indication it will stand in the way, despite a lobbying effort by a group of congressman who oppose any loosening of the long-standing U.S. trade embargo on Cuba.
Even as the negotiations have bogged down, the number of clubs interested in visiting Cuba has increased. The Anaheim Angels recently applied for a license to play an exhibition game there, though the Orioles still appear most likely to become the first major-league team to play in Cuba since 1947.
The question is when. The games have been tentatively scheduled for Feb. 28 in Havana and April 3 at Camden Yards. Those dates still are realistic if an agreement is reached soon, but the series may have to be postponed until after the 1999 regular season if something is not finalized.
Pickering welcomes mentor
More position players reported to the complex yesterday, including new second baseman Delino DeShields. Infielder Jerry Hairston took some grounders at shortstop, where he played at Single-A Frederick last season before moving to second base with Bowie. And first baseman Calvin Pickering also arrived a day earlier than required, seeking extra work in his first brush with life at a major-league camp.
Pickering worked out at the minor-league camp in Sarasota last year, but made two trips to Fort Myers for exhibition games so Miller could provide rest for Rafael Palmeiro. He made the most of a limited opportunity by getting hits off Boston's Pedro Martinez and Minnesota's Brad Radke.
Yesterday, Pickering took his place in the clubhouse between the lockers of Albert Belle and Will Clark. Clark has requested that his locker be beside Pickering, who in turn looks forward to whatever tutoring is provided by the six-time All-Star.
"I'll try to be around him as much as I can in case I don't make the team out of camp," he said. "He can teach me a lot more about the game. He wants to stay by my side so I can learn what he's doing. I hope it rubs off."
Pickering was named the Eastern League's Player of the Year after batting .309 with 31 homers and 114 RBIs at Double-A Bowie. He lasted only 15 games in the Puerto Rican League, batting .162 with no homers or RBIs before shutting down.
"I got tired at the end and decided to get my rest and work out down there," said Pickering, who also spent a few days at Duke University's Diet and Fitness Center. "It had been a long year for me and I needed to take some time off because as you see right now, the season has jumped back up on me again. Another season is here."
Sun staff writer Peter Schmuck contributed to this article.
Pub Date: 2/24/99