VERO BEACH, Fla. -- In 1948, the O’Malley family and the Dodgers organization that built the Jackie Robinson Training Complex, formerly known simply as Dodgertown, created a family-first approach to their Spring Training facility.
In fact, family has always been at the heart of the JRTC, and family is also what helped get pitcher Kristin Kopp to the east coast of Florida for the 2019 RBI Softball World Series at the legendary venue.
A 2019 graduate of Alonso High School in Tampa, Kopp is a member of the Rays RBI Tampa team competing this week in the tournament, which is split into two four-team pools and concludes on Thursday with a championship contest.
For Kopp, a pitcher who can also play first base, the softball journey was ingrained in her early by her family and will continue during her freshman season this year at State College of Florida in Bradenton, 60 miles south of her hometown.
Early Monday morning, the Rays dropped a 7-5 decision to Cleveland Baseball Federation RBI, leaving the Tampa squad 0-2 in Pool A action, but they rebounded with an 18-0 win over Roberto Clemente RBI on Field 7 in their second game before preparing for a night contest.
The trip to the JRTC wasn’t Kopp’s first, as the grounds hold a special place in her heart.
As a freshman at Alonso, she and her fellow Ravens trekked three hours to Florida’s Treasure Coast for the state softball tournament. They won their semifinal game on a walk-off home run, but lost in the title game.
Kopp, 18, said it was an honor to come back to quaint Vero Beach for the tourney, despite the memory of failing to capture a state championship over three years ago.
“It’s really nice here. The fact that it’s kind of like a little town and homey, and the fact that we’re in Florida is nice. We definitely have the most fans here,” said Kopp, who played on the Rays last year when they advanced to the World Series in Minnesota.
Kopp comes by her love for softball honestly.
Her mother, Robin Kopp, has been the softball coach at Alonso since 2002, a year after the school opened, but before that she coached at nearby Sickles High School -- just 20 minutes away.
When she was due to give birth to Kristin, the youngest of her three daughters, the coach was doing what she normally did at Sickles -- positioning players around the diamond and jotting down numbers on her scorebook.
Just not softball numbers.
“I was coaching in the game and was keeping track of the contractions on my scorebook. I eventually left to go to the hospital and had Kristin,” said her mother.
“It’s in my genes,” admitted the younger Kopp, when asked about her softball background.
The dugout soon became the playpen for Kristin and older sisters Andrea and Jessie, and they grew up around clay-filled infields, doing fielding and baserunning drills as well as batting practices.
“I told my mom I wanted to be like the high school kids,” the lefty pitcher said of her younger days attending her mother’s practices. “I was like six years old and hook-sliding at third base.”
The coach said one of her daughter’s best attributes -- one that was obvious at an early age -- were her observational skills.
“She just watched. When she was nine or 10 and at her first [Tampa Bay] Rays game, she noticed the difference in everything and had a lot of questions. About leading off, players in certain positions and the differences in softball and baseball,” Coach Kopp said.
The coach played two years at Erie Community College in Buffalo before playing at the University of Evansville. Her sister played at the University of Oklahoma, and Kristin’s older sisters also were in the lineup for their mother in high school.
Kristin wears her emotions openly, saying her attitude is “very mean” when she’s pitching and that she has a bulldog-type mentality on the mound when batters lean over and crowd her part of the plate.
She also grew teary-eyed when speaking of Sherman Johnson Sr., an assistant coach who passed away almost two years ago. She wears an “SJ Strong” wristband and quickly produces the date of his passing -- November 26, 2017.
“He was the reason I became mentally tough. I was in eighth grade, and he came to the mound and ripped me because I was showing emotion, saying, ‘You can’t do this.’ Now, it could be bases loaded and us losing and I’m not going to show emotion,” said Kopp, while wiping away a few tears.
Her mother agreed that Kristin’s mental stability is her strongest trait.
“Being my child, she didn’t ever want to hear, ‘You’re playing because your mom’s the coach.’ She didn’t want to ever hear that. She earned her spots and playing time and was a very disciplined player. She’s mentally strong,” the coach said.
Added Kristin, fondly recalling her game days with her mother: “It was nice playing for her because there was great bonding time on the field.”