With the days of Barry Bonds coming to a foreseeable end in the world of the San Francisco Giants, now more than ever the eyes of fans are turning to the future of the franchise, and the youngsters in the farm system.
Enter Ben Copeland, the Giants top pick of 2005.
Of course, top pick is a bit misleading. “As a fourth round pick, I don’t really see myself as a top pick,” Copeland says over the phone from Augusta, taking time off from his busy days to talk with SFDugout.com. Copeland was indeed both a fourth round pick and the Giants top pick. In fact, he was the lowest overall drafted top pick in MLB draft history at #132 overall. But if that’s added any pressure on a franchise whose future is more in doubt than ever, it doesn’t show with Copeland. “I mean there’s…the things you hear from other guys, but really that’s about it. I never, I mean I know that being [the top pick] doesn’t mean anything about the future.”
But that attitude shouldn’t be a surprise from him. Copeland is a product of the small northwestern Pennsylvania town of Bradford, population of about 6,000. He grew up the kind of active life one might stereotypically think of in a small town. “I remember my summer days when I was a kid growing up. I would play whiffleball from like 8 in the morning until 1, and then I would go swimming from 1 until 4, then I’d have a game at about 4:30, and then after my game I’d go back swimming again. So I mean I was just always busy, keeping, running off energy. I think a lot of that is what kept me in shape and maybe paved the way for me liking athletics.”
Now Copeland is living the dream of many young kids, having been drafted and playing in the pros. “It was an exciting time,” Copeland says of the draft experience. “That first day I was drafted by the Giants I was at the beach actually, a little beach I like. I just went to the beach and walked down the beach and I thought about being a Giant. I mean, it’d never ever crossed my mind that I’d play for the Giants, and that was really the first time it’d sink in.”
But the journey wasn’t easy for the athletic center fielder, and it still isn’t. A slow start for the Augusta GreenJackets, batting just .179 through the end of April, has had some fans concerned about Copeland’s potential. “I’m not a .185 or .190 hitter or whatever I’m hitting like that,” he insists. But for Copeland, the key to him and changing in all in his head.
Overcoming a slow start is nothing compared to what he had to deal with just getting from high school to college. Copeland played wide receiver and defensive back for his high school football team, and his problems started there. “It was the very last regular season game in my senior year, and I tackled a guy and he fell on top of me and I dislocated my shoulder, and I didn’t take any time off. I played like three more games after that. I only took that week off between that game and the next game.”
Copeland’s decision to play through his injury came back to haunt him very quickly. “The third game of the [baseball] season my senior year, it was muddy it was kind of like soft, and I went to slide head first into second base, and when I dove into second base I stuck right in the mud. And my feet wrapped up over my head, my shoulder popped out again there. So I went to see a doctor and he said I had a partial tear in my labrum so I should just sit the rest of that season out. So I only really played 3-4 games my senior year of high school.”
Two injuries make a string to picky college recruiters, and so the string had many recruiters crossing him off of their lists. But Copeland was determined. He went to play in a summer league, where his performance enticed a scout from Pitt. That got him onto Pitt’s baseball team, but his problems weren’t over.
“When I went to college my freshman year, I got beaned in the foot, and when I fell over, I landed on my elbow and popped it out again, and then I was like ‘Hmm, it’s getting kind of bad.’ And then my sophomore year I made a play at the wall where I jumped into the fence and like my arm was up in the air and I dislocated it again. So altogether it came out like 4 times, and finally I was like, it’s kinda like a problem,” he says of the recurring injury.
Although such a statement could be construed as either an extreme understatement or a state of denial, one has to remember the pressure under college athletes. The schools don’t take care of surgeries like the pros do, and losing even just a few months to rehabilitation time during important formative years can cost a young player money in the draft, or even an entire career if he’s viewed as a slow or risky developer.
However, the string of injuries was now enough for Copeland. “I got it fixed my fall of my junior year… I mean especially having that surgery where I just rehabbed and I really went hard into the offseason there, because I didn’t play in the fall and I had to catch up to all those guys in the winter and the spring.”
The work, and the surgery, paid off. As a junior, Copeland led the team in batting average (.384), runs (65), hits (84), doubles (23), triples (10), slugging (.703) and stolen bases (29). He set school single-season records in hits, runs, doubles and triples, and as a testament to his newfound durability, in at bats (219) as well. He also led his conference, The Big East, in batting, hits, runs, doubles, triples, stolen bases and slugging.
But it wasn’t the health that Copeland credits with his turnaround, it was his mindset. “In the summer leagues, I don’t know if I got physically better, but mentally my confidence grew. And when I came back in my sophomore year, I had more confidence than I did in my freshman year, and when I came back in my junior year… I expected to go four for five every game. It’s just like, it wasn’t a physical thing that I grew into it, it was just a mental approach.”
That approach came from back to when he was getting ready to go to Pitt, a Division-I school. “My senior year of high school, I went to watch a Division III game. And the Division III pitcher was throwing this little loop of a curveball. And I thought “Oh man, if this guy’s throwing this in D-III, I’m in trouble, and I’m going to play in a D-I school.” The self-described slap hitter took time to learn how to cover the outside part of the plate and recognize new pitches coming into college, and the rest just followed.
But that was just the start.
In the pros, the most unexpected change didn’t come at the plate, but instead it was in the outfield. The longtime center fielder was moved to left field when he was sent to Short Season-A Ball in Salem-Keizer. “They had [Joey] Dyche in center and I was in left,” he explained. “But sometimes when I’m in left field, I feel like…I’m not really part of the game, it’s just kind of like I’m watching the game. Because in center field you can see everything that goes on all the way around you. You can see where the pitcher’s pitching to, what part of the plate, you can tell whether a guy’s off-balance or on-balance on a swing. You can just see so much more from center field. And like when I’m in left field sometimes, it’s just a completely different angle of the game and I think that’s caught me off guard a little bit.”
The move is still something he’s adjusting to. He says that improving in left field is a goal for this season, and it’s something he’s still very shaky at. He’s not blaming that for anything, though. “I don’t really care where I play, I’m not going to complain about it… I mean, I’m a much better center fielder than a left fielder right now, but I also think that the more positions I can play, the more valuable I become. So, that could be, that could actually benefit me is playing left, if I ever go to right or whatever, I’ll be more comfortable on the corners. You can’t just go around…the way I see it the more I can play, the more it’ll help me. I’m not thinking about what position I can play, or how well I played as long as I’m in the lineup somewhere.”
Still, the start to the 2006 season both lingers and looms. And it’s been around since before the season got underway. “I didn’t have a good spring training, and I think that I was just on my heels a little bit. I was tentative. I was trying to let things happen instead of make them happen, and that’s just not the way I’ve ever played before.” Going to Augusta didn’t help with his problems. “I just have been getting a little bit more and more comfortable. I started out bad, I kind of like, went 2 for 18 or something like that, then I was 4 for 40, and it was just miserable. My timing was all off hitting.”
However, since that horrible start, he found what he needed to change. And once again, it’s just how he thinks. “I’ve just had a different outlook on it, and really become, to me it’s just become more and more about winning, and not about putting up numbers or like statistics or looking good, impressing people. And that’s what I have to play for is to win games. Because you’re not going to win games just trying to hit .300 or steal a certain number of bases or trying to throw a certain amount of guys out. To me, I’m a better player by trying to win a game, and the last two or three weeks really that’s been my main, that’s been my only concern. Just putting a W up. And my numbers are starting to increase.”
And his numbers are increasing. In the 9 games since May began, he’s hit .300, raising his average from .179 to .220 (and climbing). He’s become a bigger part of the offense, scoring 8 runs in May already compared to just 6 in April, and he’s had twice as many doubles (4) as he had in the previous month.
And that plays into the other goal he has for this season. “Another thing, another goal that I’d like to achieve…I do this on every team I’m on…is to help other people achieve their goals. You know, if people want to get a certain number of RBIs, they want to get a certain number of runs scored, you know if I do my part, they achieve their goals. So say if someone wants to score 60 runs, I drive them in 15 runs, that helps him a lot. So if somebody wants 80 RBI and I score 15 runs, that helps them a lot. So, I mean, helping other people do their part is what makes me a better player.”
So despite the slow start, can fans be optimistic about where Copeland is headed? Well, Copeland’s confidence remains as high as ever. When asked where he’ll be in the future, he says, “Three years from now, I expect to be, I expect to be on a major league roster, and I want to be best known for just playing the game the right way, playing it hard, keeping my mouth shut, just being a model baseball player. A lot of guys they complain or are always in the news or are a crowd pleaser, anything like that. I just want to play the game, do it the right way, you know, it’s a job. You just gotta take it like any other job. How many other guys can go to work and complain all day, show other people up, do that kind of stuff and keep their job? So, if you do it the right way, that’s the kind of thing I want to be known for.”
Three years can be a long trip, however. Just three years ago, he was a struggling freshman at a Division-I school with a string of shoulder problems. Now? “It’s pretty much out of my mind, it’s like it never happened… My shoulder is no problem at all.”
Perhaps in three years, this season’s early struggles will be like they never happened as well.