Thank you John Coppolella
It was a Sunday night in late-September 2014. We met at the Taco Mac in Newnan, Ga. for the first time to talk about the Atlanta Braves.
When I first met him, I was skeptical. John Coppolella was Frank Wren’s assistant general manager at the time, but only for a few more hours. We were meeting as the Wren era was ending, and Coppolella, or “Coppy” as he proudly told me to call him, had plans.
He sat in that dinner meeting and admitted the issues that had torn apart a team that the season before had won a division title. The environment created by Wren and Bruce Manno, his main assistant, had become toxic. I knew most of the mess, as longtime employees could only grimace when talking about how bad the Braves front office had become.
And it was clear after talking with Coppy for a few minutes that he was the least of the Braves’ problems.
Coppolella knew there was no farm system, and that the mix of players brought in by Wren had reached a critical stage. The Braves needed to be torn down and rebuilt, and Coppolella sat there and wrote on a napkin exactly what he would do if given the chance to be in charge.
1 – Trade Jason Heyward
2 – Trade Justin Upton
3 – Trade Craig Kimbrel only if it meant getting rid of B.J. Upton
4 - Hire Brian Bridges to run the scouting department
5 – Bring back Roy Clark as Bridges’ main assistant
6 – Use pitching as the centerpiece of his rebuilding plan
In the meeting, as we munched on wings and he violently tackled the guacamole, it was obvious that Coppolella was not just some stathead, as I had assumed. He did embrace scouting and believed John Schuerholz was who he needed to emulate, not Wren. It was also obvious Coppy’s mind was racing a million miles a minute.
Two days later, Wren was fired. The trio of Schuerholz. Bobby Cox and John Hart sat and said they would get back to “The Braves Way,” meaning the team had drifted from what Schuerholz and Cox had built together in the 1990s. It was no longer an organization on the same page, but instead a franchise led by a power-hungry general manager who did it his way and only his way.
Coppolella would be the one who make all the decisions, but it wasn’t until a year later until they officially gave him the title of general manager. Coppolella sold the trio on the exact plans he had laid out for me that same night, and they gave him free reign to carry out his plan. Hart rubber-stamped every move Coppolella would go on to make.
We would meet every few months for lunch or dinner, and every time Coppolella came off as driven and determined to make the Braves great again. And one by one, the players he had said he would trade were sent packing. And in every trade, every move, Coppy would get back pitching. He wanted pitching to be at the forefront of his rebuilding philosophy.
He knew how Cox had built the Braves 30 years earlier. For years, the Braves were all about home run hitters. People thought good pitching couldn’t work in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, but after years of losing, Cox and Paul Snyder and Stan Kasten went with pitching.
The results were historic, and when Kasten ordered Cox back into the dugout, where he wanted to be all along, Schuerholz was brought in to put the whip cream on top of the chocolate shake. It was that combination of personnel that made the Braves winners of five pennants and one World Series title in the 1990s. It was why the Braves won 14 straight division titles from 1991-2005.
Coppolella wanted to follow the same blueprint. When Bridges was brought in as scouting director, pitching became the priority. That’s what Clark had done when he took over as scouting director in 2000, until Wren ignorantly ran him off in 2009.
So, the work began. Over the next few years, Coppolella would either trade for or oversee the draft in which a good percentage of the current roster was acquired.
November 17, 2014: Jason Heyward and Jorden Walden to the Cardinals for Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins (who were spun later for Dansby Swanson, Ender Inciarte and Luke Jackson)
December 3, 2014: Signed free agent outfielder Nick Markakis (Coppolella compared the signing to when Schuerholz signed Terry Pendleton before the 1991 season)
December 18, 2014: Justin Upton and Aaron Northcraft to the Padres for Max Fried, Dustin Peterson, Jace Peterson and Mallex Smith
January 14, 2015: Evan Gattis and James Hoyt to the Astros for Mike Foltynewicz, Andrew Thurman and Rio Ruiz
February 1, 2015: Signed William Contreras as a free agent
April 5, 2015: Melvin Upton, Jr. and Craig Kimbrel to the Padres for Matt Wisler, a 2015 competitive balance round draft pick (that pick became Austin Riley), Matt Wisler, Jordan Paroubeck, Cameron Maybin and Carlos Quinton
June 8-10, 2015: Drafted high school pitchers Kolby Allard (the price for current reliever Chris Martin) and Mike Soroka, along with third baseman Austin Riley – A.J. Minter was drafted in the second round – Patrick Weigel was drafted in the seventh round
July 3, 2015: Signed Cristian Pache
November 12, 2015: Andrelton Simmons to the Angels for Sean Newcomb, Chris Ellis and Erick Aybar
December 9, 2015: Shelby Miller and Gabe Speier to the D’Backs for Dansby Swanson, Ender Inciarte and Aaron Blair
December 16, 2015: Signed free agent Tyler Flowers
June 9, 2016: Drafted Ian Anderson with the third overall pick in the amateur draft and Joey Wentz (the price for current reliever Shane Greene) drafted in the second round
June 10, 2016: Drafted Bryse Wilson in the 4 round of the amateur draft
November 28, 2016: Traded Max Povse and Rob Whalen to Seattle for Alex Jackson and Tyler Pike
December 8, 2016: Traded Tyrell Jenkins and Brady Feigl to Texas for Luke Jackson
June 12, 2017: Drafted Kyle Wright with the 5 pick in the amateur draft
July 24, 2017: Jaime Garcia and Anthony Recker traded to Twins for Huascar Ynoa
If you include Greene and Martin, who were acquired by current general manager Alex Anthopoulos with prospects drafted in the Coppolella era, there were 13 players of the 28 on the National League Division Series roster who were either traded for, drafted or signed during the reign of Coppolella.
The Braves current three-man rotation of Fried, Anderson and Wright are together because of the priority Coppolella made to go after young pitching prospects.
And there were other decisions Coppy made that still impact this Braves team to this very day. When the team needed to fire Fredi Gonzalez as manager, most believed Pendleton or Eddie Perez, members of Gonzalez’s staff, would be the leading candidates. Instead, Coppolella went with Brian Snitker, who was the perfect choice and has led the Braves to three straight division titles as manager.
When many expected Coppolella to trade Freddie Freeman, he didn’t. He could have, as the Astros (offering A.J. Reed, who retired last March after a failed MLB career) and many other teams repeatedly knocked on Coppy’s door to try and pry Freeman loose. Instead, Coppolella wanted Freeman to be the centerpiece of a rebuilt Braves team. That was a great call.
Now, don’t get me wrong, Coppolella wasn’t perfect. He had a strange attraction to Cuban baseball players, and he wouldn’t give up until Hector Olivera was a Brave. He traded Alex Wood, which was a huge mistake, for Olivera. And the Simmons trade will always be looked at as a mistake, as Newcomb has failed to become what he was projected to be at the time of the trade.
But Coppolella should be given tremendous credit. As the Atlanta Braves start the National League Championship Series Monday night in Dallas against the Dodgers, this team is where it is at partly because of what Coppolella accomplished in his time as general manger. Those directives he wrote on a napkin at the Taco Mac in Newnan in 2014 were carried out almost perfectly.
The sad part, however, is that Coppolella is not here to enjoy it. He went from knowing how to not treat people after watching Wren and Manno bully employees to doing some of the same things himself. He went from listening to people in his first year to not wanting to hear those same people’s opinions.
John Coppolella is a genius. Yes, a genius. His mind is special. But there was a Rain Man-like syndrome about him that he could not control. Coppolella could possibly count the toothpicks as they were dropped on the floor, but he might also start banging his head if he couldn’t get what he wanted.
And I’m not being mean here. He had savant-like characteristics that served him well, but it also led to his downfall. His mind never stopped. He was so driven to make the Braves great that he couldn’t control himself.
Once, when we were at lunch, he either texted or talked to at least four general managers, and he actually acquired Alex Jackson from the Mariners before our entrée came. He never pushed pause. He was like a machine.
And that was the problem. While Anthopoulos seems more balanced in his life, Coppolella was so one-tracked on being great at what he did and what he wanted to accomplish that it ate him alive. This was an obsessed man who wanted so much to be the best at what he did.
But the problem was he wanted to sign everybody he could, even if he bent the rules a bit. What he did, and oversaw, with the international rules being broken are done by other teams. The Braves were just blatant about it. They didn’t even try to hide what they were doing, and they got caught.
And then, from all accounts, Coppolella just didn’t own up to what he had done. That’s why he’s not in baseball. That’s why he didn’t just serve a one-year suspension and get another job somewhere else in the sport. Even with the evidence being overwhelming, Coppolella didn’t admit that the Braves had broken the rules.
So, he’s not in a place today to enjoy the fruits of his labor. It’s sad, and it’s not something that should be laughed at or made fun of. This man did make mistakes, but damn, he was good at what he did. His work is a major reason the Atlanta Braves are where they are today, and why this team could be one of the best in the sport this decade.
What has always been tough for me to take is how Terry McGuirk was let off the hook. He, along with John Hart, knew everything that was going on. I’ve heard from many sources, for example, that McGuirk and Hart were both present when the Braves hosted 14-year-old prospect Robert Puason at Turner Field for a workout. That visit broke the rules, and the Braves were not allowed to sign Puason because of that.
McGuirk has always said privately he believed Hart knew nothing of what was going on. There’s just overwhelming proof that is simply not true. From numerous accounts, McGuirk and Hart knew exactly what Coppolella was going to do with the international strategy that got Coppy banned.
And the most horrific thing was when McGuirk called Coppolella a “cancer.” That was awful, like Coppolella was the only bad apple in the front office. Coppolella deserved better than that. Yes, he had his faults, but come on. That was a horrible thing to say about a person.
The sad part is baseball commissioner Rob Manfred let McGuirk and Hart off the hook. It must be nice to be golfing buddies with the commissioner. The Puason incident alone should have gotten them in trouble. Hart was horrible and pushing aside Schuerholz in itself was a testament to the power trip he seemed to be on.
Here’s the thing you need to know. John Coppolella was a good man. He didn’t shoot anybody. He just got out of control in his desire to be great. He couldn’t control himself. There was no shut off button for him to stop. He just couldn’t, and it cost him.
Did he treat people unfairly and did his out-of-control nature lead to issues with employees who helped him make this team great? Yes, there’s no question about it. There were things that went on that he likely regrets, and things he probably would do differently if he had the chance.
I developed a friendship with him. I enjoyed talking baseball with him, mainly because he was so damn smart. I loved seeing someone fix what had been badly broken in the years before he took over. He was good at what he did, and you can’t write the story of the 2020 Braves without having Coppolella as a main character.
I failed in my duties as a friend, as with everything that happened, I’ve never reached out to him. I really didn’t know what to say to him, but I should have figured out something to say. For that, I am sorry. Maybe I knew how awful it must have been for him to lose something he loved so much, but I still should have reached out. Maybe it’s not too late. Maybe this is my attempt.
I cannot imagine what Coppolella must feel when he sees the Braves’ success. I’ve often wondered if he watches the games, or if he has been able to balance his life more with his wife and beautiful kids and just moved on. I hope he’s found some peace, and that despite losing so much, he understands what he did to help this team get to where it is Monday night in Game One of the NLCS.
There are a lot of people who deserve credit – along with the players – for what is happening with the Braves. Snitker is at the top of the list, as his style has been perfect for this team. Anthopoulos deserves tremendous credit for being patient and not trading many of the prospects Coppolella accumulated during the rebuild – along with the moves he made to compliment the talent he inherited.
And don’t forget about Bridges and Clark, who were both run off by Anthopoulos for some stupid reason that no one comprehends. They are great baseball men who loved this organization and need to be there today.
The combination of the work these men have done have the Braves – just six years after I sat down with Coppolella when he drew up his rebuilding plan – set to play Game One of the National League Championship Series tonight.
Just don’t forget Coppy. He deserves credit. Braves fans everywhere should thank him for what he did to start the rebuild and get the team back on track, to where they are in a place they have not been in for 19 years. The success this team will have in the 2020s was started by this man making brave decisions six years ago.
Coppolella deserves another shot in the game of baseball. Maybe he doesn’t want it. Maybe he’s closed that chapter of his life. But the game needs smart people like John Coppolella, who has had to learn from his mistakes.
Manfred should strongly consider reinstating him if Coppy ever applies to get back in. He was good at what he did, and if you don’t believe it, just watch the Braves this week.
For more Braves coverage, listen to The Bill Shanks Show weekdays at 3:00 p.m. ET on SportsRadio 93-1 WXKO TheSuperStations.com. Bill will also do a Facebook Live after every Braves playoff game this week on The Bill Shanks Show Facebook page. Follow Bill on Twitter @billshanks and you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.