Frank Coppenbarger ordered an iced tea and began telling stories.
"Did I ever tell you the one about ..." he said with a laugh.
This went on for an hour over lunch the other day. It could have gone on for a lot longer because, after a half-century working inside baseball's inner sanctum, Coppenbarger has more stories than Lenny Dykstra had batting gloves.
"Most high-maintenance player I ever had," Coppenbarger said. "You needed an equipment manager just for him. If he was having a bad game, he'd come in and take everything off — uniform, socks, underwear — throw it in the trash and put new stuff on. Sometimes he'd do it after one at-bat. He'd go back to the dugout and we'd fetch all his stuff out of the trash, wash it and hang it back in his locker."
Batting gloves were one of Dysktra's obsessions.
"We had a case we carried the batting gloves in," Coppenbarger said. "One drawer for Lenny, one drawer for the rest of the team. Sometimes he'd use a new pair every at-bat."
Color combinations were crucial to Dykstra.
"If he had a big night wearing red-and-blue gloves, we'd have three pairs on his chair the next day," Coppenbarger said. "He'd walk in the clubhouse and say, 'Red and blue, dude, red and blue.' And we'd say, 'We're ahead of you, Lenny. Already there.'"
The funny thing about Dykstra was that while he was a baseball version of Pig-Pen, the old Charles Schulz character, on the field, his locker was immaculate.
The guy in the next locker — not so much.
"John Kruk had the dirtiest locker," Coppenbarger said. "One year we found an old sandwich in the back. Another year, we found over $20,000 in checks from equipment and cards companies wadded up in there. He'd forgotten about them."
Darren Daulton's locker was a few seats away.
"He would just sit there and take it all in," Coppenbarger said.
What a show it was.
And what a seat Frank Coppenbarger had for all it — 50 years in baseball, including the last 30-plus with the Phillies, first as head equipment manager and then as director of travel and clubhouse services.
• • •
Coppenbarger recently retired from the Phillies. Wednesday was his last official day with the club. No more bats to order, no more planes, trains and automobiles to book, no more uniforms to mend, no more old sandwiches to clean out of the back of lockers.
Just a lot of great memories for a guy who fell in love with being around the game and all its characters as an 11-year-old batboy for the Decatur (Illinois) Commodores, a San Francisco Giants minor-league club, in the Midwest League in 1967.
Roy Coppenbarger kept a scrapbook of his son's first season as the Commodores batboy. One of the clippings, now yellowed with age, recounts an April 28, 1967 game against the Wisconsin Rapids. A young redhead named Charlie Manuel hit a home run to help Wisconsin beat Decatur, 4-3.
Is baseball a small world or what?
Forty-one years later, Coppenbarger was in the dugout, just a few feet from Manuel, when the Phillies won the 2008 World Series. The Phillies threw a big party that night and when it ended, club president David Montgomery looked at this big, gleaming trophy he'd been presented with a few hours earlier. He wanted to make sure it would be kept safe and delivered to the parade two days later. There was only one man for the job.
"Frank, can you take care of this?" Montgomery asked.
Coppenbarger wrapped a seat belt around the trophy and took it home to South Jersey. The next morning, he and the kids ate breakfast with it at the kitchen table and he brought it back over the bridge the next day for the parade.
After his years as batboy in Decatur, Coppenbarger enrolled at Millikin University in 1975. He wanted to teach and coach basketball. Or so he thought. The lure of being around baseball and the ballpark was too much to overcome. He left school and began chasing his dream of working in the majors. He worked in clubhouses out west in the California League and in the midwest in the American Association.
Coppenbarger was the equipment manager with the Angels' Class A Salinas club in the California League in 1978. Chuck Cottier, who 20 years later would work on the Phillies' staff, was the manager. Nowadays, minor-league teams have full coaching staffs. Back then it was just the skipper. He threw all the batting practice and it was quite a load on the ol' flipper. Sometimes Coppenbarger would pick up a round of BP for Cottier. Sometimes Cottier would reward him and let him take some swings.
"Ever want to play pro ball?" Cottier asked Coppenbarger one day.
"Hell, yeah," the young equipment man said.
Salinas finished the season with a doubleheader. Before the second game, Cottier produced a contract for Coppenbarger to sign. He hit third in the game. Joe Maddon, now the popular World Series-winning manager of the Chicago Cubs, was a backup catcher on that team. He hit seventh. Coppenbarger struck out in his only at-bat but he's forever immortalized with his own page of Baseball-Reference.com.
Maddon was a popular chap even back in those days.
"Everyone wanted to room with Joe because he was a great cook," Coppenbarger said. "He'd make these amazing lasagnas from scratch and invite guys over. Before eating, he'd take a Polaroid picture of each lasagna and write the date and all the people who were there on it. I ran into Joe a couple of years ago and he said he still had all of those pictures in an album."
Coppenbarger worked for the Cardinals' Triple A club in Springfield, Illinois for three seasons and moved up to the majors with that team in 1981. He was the Cardinals assistant equipment manager for seven years. He was there when the Cardinals won the 1982 World Series. He was there for Ozzie Smith's home run in the Go Crazy, Folks! game in 1985 and in the visiting dugout packing equipment two weeks later as the Kansas City Royals celebrated winning the World Series the night after umpire Don Denkinger's infamous blown call.
"Man, that was a tough night," he said with a wince.
• • •
In 1988, Cardinals executive Lee Thomas became Phillies general manager. He hired Coppenbarger to run the clubhouse and handle the equipment.
Coppenbarger's Philadelphia scrapbook is full of indelible memories and unforgettable characters.
He recalled being on the tarmac, supervising the packing of the team plane, one Sunday afternoon in San Francisco in May 1989 and seeing Mike Schmidt and manager Nick Leyva having a serious conversation underneath the plane.
"It was very unusual," Coppenbarger said. "I just had a funny feeling something was up. The team wasn't playing very well. Neither was Schmitty."
Once airborne, Leyva let Coppenbarger in on a secret: Schmidt would announce his retirement the next day in San Diego.
"When we landed, I pulled his jersey out of the laundry bag and took it to the hotel with me," Coppenbarger said. "You never know what could happen. I didn't want the last jersey Mike Schmidt would wear to disappear."
Two years later, he found himself running around Olympic Stadium in Montreal trying to secure a few bottles of champagne so the team could celebrate Tommy Greene's no-hitter. As the players were celebrating the no-hitter moments after the final out, Roger McDowell arranged for one of the attendants in the visiting clubhouse to go in the back room and get on the telephone and pretend to be the Canadian Prime Minister calling to congratulate Greene.
Coppenbarger still bubbles with laughter telling the story.
"Tommy was on the phone being very reverent," he said. "He says, 'Thank you so much, Sir, it's an honor to do this in Canada.' Meanwhile, the guy on the other end of the phone is 10 feet away behind a partition and the guys in the clubhouse are howling."
Greene was a 16-game winner on the 1993 National League championship team.
Like everybody else, Coppenbarger loved the cast of loonies on that team, but, "Oh, my god, they were nuts," he said.
One day that spring, Dale Murphy, the former two-time MVP with an altar boy's purity, thought Kruk was getting out of line on a team bus. Murphy, who would be traded later that spring, politely asked Kruk to cool it. He did it a second time to no avail. Finally, Murphy rose on the bus and said, "John, if you don't knock it off, I'm going to come back there and bop you one."
"Who says, 'I'm going to bop you one?'" Coppenbarger said with a laugh. "It was so Murph.
"And that bus got as quiet as a church."
The players on that '93 team liked to stay in the clubhouse into the wee hours of the morning after games.
"They'd have a few beers and talk about the game," Coppenbarger said. "It was their way of bonding, one of the things that made them special.
"But sometimes they'd be there until 3 in the morning and I was the guy responsible for putting the chain on the door. I wanted to go home."
Finally, Coppenbarger came up with a solution. Workers blew out a wall from the clubhouse into the tunnel at Veterans Stadium and installed a door with a crash bar.
"Let yourself out, boys, I'm going home," Coppenbarger told those late-night Phillies with great glee.
He knew that was going to be a special team as far back as spring training. He could see it all coming together. Daulton drove in 100 runs the year before. Curt Schilling was emerging. There was a chemistry building.
And that chemistry extended from the coaches room to the broadcast booth. Coppenbarger enjoyed a great friendship with the late John Vukovich and still does with Larry Bowa and Chris Wheeler. Coppenbarger misses the way Vuke used to torment Wheeler.
"Wheels used to carry a briefcase," he said. "Vuke would steal it and put it out behind second base during batting practice. Wheels would have to tip-toe out there to get it while guys would be trying to bomb him with line drives."
• • •
Coppenbarger watched from the front row as the nucleus of Pat Burrell, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard came together to form a World Series winner. He can still hear Elvis, Burrell's bulldog, snoring under his desk during games. Coppenbarger loved that pooch so much that he ordered it a dog collar with a big replica of a 2008 World Series ring on it.
Utley was the most prepared player Coppenbarger ever encountered.
"He'd spend hours in the video room," he said. "And after his knee problems, he'd do whatever it took to get on the field."
Utley quickly won the admiration of Roy Halladay when the Hall of Fame pitcher arrived in 2010. Halladay was a serious guy who didn't mess around much, but he had a remote-control helicopter that he'd bring to the clubhouse now and then. One of Coppenbarger's duties was to pass out the paychecks on the first and 15th of each month. On one payday, Coppenbarger was looking for Howard, who was in the back room eating lunch.
"Give me that," Halladay said.
The pitcher taped Howard's paycheck to the helicopter, flew it into the back room and landed it right in front of Howard's plate. That was some big airmail.
"Roy didn't laugh much but he laughed his ass off that day," Coppenbarger said.
There was no laughing, however, when Cliff Lee decided to eschew the police-escorted team bus and take a taxi to Game 1 of the 2009 World Series at Yankee Stadium. Coppenbarger, everyone's problem-solver, got a call from Lee about two hours before the game, long after the team had arrived at the park.
"I was on the field for batting practice," Coppenbarger said. "I thought he was calling from the trainer's room and maybe there was a problem with tickets or something."
Lee was stuck in traffic. He hadn't moved in 20 minutes. He was worried about making the game on time.
"Find a police officer and tell him who you are," Coppenbarger suggested.
Lee could not find a cop so he jumped on the subway and found his way to the stadium by following hordes of Yankees fans. But this was the first year of the new Yankee Stadium. Lee had never been there before. He could not find the players' entrance.
He called Coppenbarger again.
"Wait by the McDonald's and we'll send someone up for you," he told the anxious pitcher.
Of course, Lee pitched nine walk-free innings and struck out 10 for the win that night. To this day, Coppenbarger is not sure what amazes him more, that feat, or the fact that he was able to keep all the pre-game anxiety from the skipper, Manuel, the man that he'd first crossed paths with back in 1967 as an 11-year-old batboy in the Midwest League.
Those were the days when Coppenbarger's passion for the game and all its characters came to life.
"All I wanted to do was find a way to work my way through baseball and get to the big leagues," he said, finishing off that ice tea.
A half-century later, he heads off to retirement with two World Series rings and one heck of a scrapbook.
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