GLENDALE, Ariz. — A failed PED test. A 50-game suspension. A fight with a former teammate. A broken pitching hand.
It all blew up like that for Michael Kopech in one calendar year.
And it was probably the best thing that ever happened to him.
“There have been points where I wanted to quit baseball. There have been points where I wanted to stop trying,” Kopech said Thursday in an exclusive interview with NBC Sports Chicago.
This was the breaking point that almost ended Kopech’s career before it truly began but would eventually change his life for the better once the storms passed.
“Everything felt like it was on me at once, and it was tough because I had just gotten through the suspension, worked my butt off all offseason, came back to spring training in the best shape I had ever been in, and then broke my hand the first day of spring,” Kopech explained. “More than anything, I was frustrated and knew I wasn’t making anything better for myself and I was ready to get out of there.”
How long was he in this mode of possibly quitting baseball?
“Probably a couple weeks.”
The PED suspension in 2015 was for the stimulant Oxilofrine, which has been found in supplements which Kopech says he didn’t knowingly take.
“We do have certifications that we’re supposed to follow. We’re supposed to make sure that everything we take or put in our bodies is certified, and I probably wasn’t as safe as I should have been on that. I do take responsibility on that, and I regret it. But it’s part of the past and I did learn from it, so I can’t be too upset about it now and dwell on the past.”
The fight wasn’t only with Kopech’s teammate. It was also with his roommate.
“It was a good friend of mine I was trying to help out. Things went south and he took a couple swings at me and I took one swing back. It just happened to not be a very good punch,” Kopech said. “I’ve accepted that I messed up. He accepted it as well. I’m open about it because it’s in the past and I’ve learned from it. But I’m not too proud to say I made a mistake. Fortunately, he’s still with the Red Sox and doing well over there. I think it didn’t alter our careers negatively, but maybe we both matured quite a bit from it and somehow, someway altered it positively. He’s still one of my good buddies.”
To say that Kopech’s dream is to make the major leagues would be limiting. He has a strong desire not only to be great but to be one of the all-time greats.
You can’t always pinpoint where a person’s ambition comes from. Kopech thinks it was from his torturous year as a nomad, out of baseball with a broken hand and a broken soul.
“Everybody talks about that itch to get back to spring training. When you have that for 12 straight months, it just grows and grows and grows,” Kopech said. “There’s going to be adversity coming your way in baseball. Learning from the adversity off the field is one of the tougher things I’ve ever had to do. Having all that come at once forced me to learn from it. I probably was a little stubborn and hard-headed at first, but taking a year off baseball, all you have time to do is think, anyway. I put myself in much better positions, became a lot more mindful about the game, and I feel like it has a lot to do with who I am today.”
Partly what changed him, and frankly might have saved him, was learning how to meditate. It’s a practice he learned from Red Sox mental performance coach Justin Su’a soon after the fateful fight with his teammate.
“It put me in a mental state that I never experienced. It’s almost like a flow state when I pitch but a lot calmer, so I got hooked on meditating and it took me away from the negativity of all that,” Kopech said. “I realized that my mind is my most powerful tool. I got addicted to this feeling that came from me being a more mindful athlete rather than just a powerful athlete or an athlete that throws 100 miles per hour. It took me away from being this guy that’s one dimensional to the outside public and made me have a lot more self value than Michael Kopech the baseball player.”
Kopech meditates before every start. Where exactly?
“For the most part, I’ll go find a closet or empty room somewhere in the stadium where I can zone out,” he said. “But even if it’s close to the clubhouse and I hear a little chatter that’s fine because the type of meditating I do focuses a little on background noise and helps my mind get to the place where I need it to get.”
It’s become such a powerful tool, he believes it gives him a distinct advantage over the hitter when he's on the mound.
“It’s tapping into this part of your mind that most people can’t dive into, and what’s funny is pitching is like cheating to me. When I pitch, the first batter I see with the stadium full of people, I’m in that state. Most people have to work their whole lives to feel that type of dopamine rush. Whatever it is actually, I don’t know exactly what it is, but I know the feeling and I get it instantly when I take the mound. For me, that’s why I love the game because it makes me feel alive.”
It's a purpose and passion that has been reborn. Living proof that Kopech's mind is maybe all that matters.