Coppolella's work ethic took him from intern to exec
Braves assistant GM began baseball career just out of college with Yankees
ATLANTA -- If John Coppolella gains the lofty title the Braves might eventually bestow upon him, he would likely become the first general manager who can lay claim to entering the baseball industry with the help of some quarters he deposited into payphones in three states.
Actually, Coppolella's current status as the right-hand man for Braves president of baseball operations John Hart likely has more to do with the intelligence, work ethic and passion he has displayed, dating back to when he entered the baseball world as a 21-year-old intern who drew the attention of late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.
"[Steinbrenner] really liked him," Braves special assistant Gordon Blakeley said. "He called him 'The Kid.' He'd say, 'Get The Kid in here, I want to hear what The Kid has done on this.' [Coppolella] would make a report for the owner every day on our farm system and other things that happened in the games. He would do a statistical breakdown. George was never really into stats stuff, except what [Coppolella] did, which was really, really unique."
Though Coppolella's title has remained assistant general manager, he has assumed many of the general manager duties for Atlanta since Frank Wren was dismissed from the role on Sept. 22. The additional power he gained over the past six weeks was first evidenced by the hiring of Blakeley, an accomplished scout, who has served as somewhat of a father figure to Coppolella dating back to when they worked together for the Yankees at the club's Tampa, Fla., Spring Training complex from 2000-06.
Hart and Braves president John Schuerholz have the final say on the decisions made within the baseball operations department. But they have confidently given many of the GM duties to Coppolella, who has shown his appreciation by putting in countless hours to guide the organization through a transitional period that has already included a massive front-office overhaul.
"I think Coppy is a big reason why I took this job," Hart said. "I've had a lot of people in the [GM] family tree, if you will. I've had a lot of young guys who have come through the office [and become GMs]. Coppy is really good. I'm telling you, he is really good. I think you're going to see a young man who is really going to develop and grow."
The phone booth journey
As Coppolella neared the end of his senior year at Notre Dame, he had already accepted a $90,000 salary and $10,000 signing bonus to work in the planning and logistics department at Intel. But dating back to his freshman year when he had sent letters seeking employment to every Major League organization and Minor League affiliate, he has had an intense desire to work in baseball, an industry he was introduced to during his early childhood, when his father moonlighted as an Angels parking lot attendant at Anaheim Stadium.
Thus, when the Yankees informed him that he was a finalist for a baseball operations internship that would pay $18,000 and almost certainly not lead to a full-time job, he suddenly lost interest in the financial security Intel would have provided as he attempted to pay off his enormous student loan debt.
"The whole thing for me in life and the way I see things is, it's not as much about the outcome as it is the process," Coppolella said. "I was thinking, 'If I don't go for this now, I'm always going to wonder, what if?'"
So in the midst of a family trip from South Bend, Ind., to New York City during the spring of 2000, Coppolella completed a three-step interview process with the Yankees by stopping at payphones in Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Somewhere in the middle of New Jersey, he informed his parents that he had gotten the Yanks job and that they would now need to head south to Tampa to help set him up for the new world that awaited.
"I said, 'I have a chance to run down a dream,'" Coppolella said. "[My parents] weren't happy about it."
When Coppolella began his internship, he shared an apartment with two guys he had never met, and he fulfilled his financial obligations -- car payment, car insurance, rent and living expenses -- by taking on a second job that made him "the worst employee Chili's has ever had." But during that seven-month stretch when he experienced the restaurant world three to four nights per week, all he cared about was making the most of the opportunity the Yankees had provided.
"If it hadn't worked out with the Yankees and it would have just ended with the internship, I'd have been all right, because I would have looked back and known I couldn't have worked any harder," Coppolella said. "If it was not meant to be, it was not meant to be. I did everything they asked and more. I went in with zero expectations. It wasn't about what I'm going to get or what they were going to pay me."
The Yankees years
Steinbrenner wanted many of his vice presidents and top members of the scouting and player development departments working alongside him in Tampa, so Coppolella was surrounded by some of the Yankees' most influential people.
But instead of being intimidated by the environment he entered five days after graduating from Notre Dame, Coppolella immediately impressed with the work ethic he acquired while growing up in a middle-class Southern California household that was supported by the income of his father, a U.S. Postal Service employee for 35 years, and his mother, an elementary school teacher.
"He was an on-the-job guy," said Billy Connors, who served as the Yanks' vice president of player personnel. "Everything was baseball. He just dedicated himself so much. He wanted to learn and better himself. He wasn't stepping on anybody's heels or anything like that. He was just doing his job and wanting to be respected for what he did."
Along with handling administrative duties aimed toward tracking prospects and preparing for the annual First-Year Player Draft, Coppolella spent his earliest years with the Yankees handling some far less glorious tasks, like picking up players from the airport or occasionally cleaning toilets. He also volunteered to help fulfill Steinbrenner's wish of having one employee answer the phones at the stadium every Sunday morning during the offseason.
"I would read about prospects, read about our own players and try to learn as much as I could while I was there those mornings," Coppolella said. "There was always one call every week [from Steinbrenner] at 11:55. He would say, 'Hello, young sir. Has anyone called today?' I'd say, 'No, you were the only call.' Then he'd say, 'At 12 o'clock and not one minute earlier, you're free to leave.'"
An early exit is not something Steinbrenner had to worry about with Coppolella, who was usually the first to arrive and the last to leave the Tampa office. His determination to succeed meant he was provided entrance by a security guard. The fact that he did not have a key until he was hired full-time in January 2001 had something to do with him staying later than the other employees throughout his internship.
"I would get there at 9 in the morning, just because [Steinbrenner] would keep you there late at night, so you never wanted to come in too early," said Blakeley, who served as a vice president during a portion of his long tenure with the Yanks. "[Coppolella] would have already been there for two hours working on stuff. Then he would leave after everybody at 8 or 9 o'clock at night. I'm talking seven days a week."
The move to the Braves
After spending a few years impressing the Yankees brass with his suggestions and the ability to make sense of statistical analysis, Coppolella added scouting the Florida State League to his responsibilities. This allowed him to meet a few Braves scouts who nominated him as a candidate when they learned there was an opening in their club's baseball operations department in October 2006.
Coppolella was unaware of this opening and thus surprised to hear that he had become one of the five finalists. Intrigued by the opportunity, he drove from Tampa to Orlando for a two-plus-hour meeting with Schuerholz, who was preparing for what would be his final season as Atlanta's GM, and Wren.
As Coppolella was driving back to Tampa, the Braves called to inform him the job was his.
"I was thrilled," Coppolella said. "It was one the best feelings sitting in traffic on I-4. Getting a chance to work for Schuerholz, a man I have always admired, I think was the biggest draw for me."
Coppolella's analytical strengths have proven to be a benefit as he has handled arbitration issues, Draft analysis, player projections and other statistical matters during his eight seasons with Atlanta. But instead of being simply a "numbers guy," he has allowed himself to gain a better feel for the pure scouting mindset by befriending many of the scouts he has sat among while positioned behind home plate at Turner Field on a nightly basis.
Coppolella has also had a chance to display his leadership skills, as he and Hart have spent the past six weeks reconstructing the front office and preparing for an interesting offseason that could include some significant moves.
"Coppy is anxious and raring to go, to learn and to enhance his ability as a baseball executive," Schuerholz said. "He will be working directly with [Hart] in a remarkable way. Coppy will be quite well benefited as a young executive to work at John's side and do many of the things some general managers do."
While Coppolella is certainly hoping to eventually gain the GM title, he certainly seems satisfied with the fact that he is still living the dream that was realized after he used those payphone quarters to distance himself from the financial comfort Intel was willing to provide.
"I feel like I'm playing with house money," Coppolella said. "I don't go in with any expectations that I want to have this title or this pay rate. That isn't me. At the end of the day for me, as long as I look back and don't wonder what else I could have done, I'm fine with it."