Kevin Kopec grew up in Madrid – Spain’s capital city that has a population of more than three million.
It’s a city that has one baseball field.
The sport couldn’t be more of an afterthought for those who live there.
Kopec, though, didn’t really want to play soccer like everyone else. He focused most of his time on baseball, a game he says was more for him.
Even with a lack of baseball talent and knowledge around him, the 6-foot, 155-pound lefty has been successful in advancing his baseball career to the collegiate level.
He has found a baseball home – at Stevenson University in Owings Mills, thousands of miles from Spain.
How in the world did that happen?
Because Kopec has grandparents in the States, and was visiting them at an opportune time.
Because a video caught the attention of Stevenson’s head baseball coach Jason Tawney.
And because Division 3 Stevenson was willing to provide Kopec with an opportunity to play — against advanced competition — while receiving an education. He had to give it a shot.
Forget for a moment that Kopec grew up in Spain and that he attended a French-based school so he could be tri-lingual. Otherwise, this is just another version of pursuing the American dream.
Kopec began playing baseball at age 6. His father, Joseph, was born and raised in the United States and grew up as a Pittsburgh Pirates fan. The dad, who moved to Spain to pursue his master’s degree in Spanish literature in the late 1980s and never really left Madrid, loved baseball. His son followed suit.
The younger Kopec initially idolized Pirates greats such as Willie Stargell, but as he began to study baseball from afar – on the internet – he became a fan of the New York Yankees and, of course, shortstop Derek Jeter.
Honing his own skills on the diamond was trickier. Madrid’s lone baseball field isn’t readily available for public use. If you pay, you can play.
“The price is around 50 dollars per hour,” Kopec said. “You can find two or three more fields on the outskirts of Madrid that are owned by clubs, but again, there’s really low availability of fields to even practice on.”
Finding a way to play
In order to get playing time, Kopec turned to club teams. He played for different ones, eventually joining El Llano, in the northern part of Spain. He had the opportunity to play a few times in Italy and the Czech Republic, and also attended clinics in 2012 and 2013 at the American School of Madrid, which were led by former Orioles pitcher Jeremy Guthrie, and, at the time, his Kansas City Royals teammate, catcher Salvador Perez.
“Another important club he played with was the 18U Tenerife Marlins,” said Kopec’s father. “They were Champions of Spain in 2015 and, his work there boosted him to Team Spain 18U and the European Championship.”
With the 18U Team Spain squad, Kopec again traveled to the Czech Republic and played in the 18U European Championship. He was the starting pitcher in Spain’s game against eventual champion, Italy.
He combined that with experience playing baseball in the U.S. In five consecutive summers, Kopec would visit his grandparents in upstate New York and play with the Orchard Park Braves.
Entering his senior year in high school, Kopec had a tough decision to make. He could either stay in Spain for college and see his baseball career come to a close, or he could try to play in the U.S. He made that call about halfway through his senior year.
“It has always been my dream to play in the MLB, so we contacted an agent through NSR (National Scouting Report, a recruiting service) and they sent my info to a couple of colleges in the eastern part of the U.S. and (we) were contacted by a couple of colleges.”
Around Easter last year, Stevenson’s Tawney watched the clips of the lanky left-hander.
“He sent a video that I was able to view of him pitching and I not only liked what I saw,” Tawney said. “But I also knew there were very few coaches that were going to reach out to him based on his video alone.”
Tawney inquired about a potential visit, and it just so happened the Kopecs were heading to Buffalo around Easter.
“We arranged to meet with them,” Tawney said. “And they obviously enjoyed their visit enough that he decided to come to Stevenson to play baseball.”
Preparing to pitch
It ended up as a good fit. But there have been some bumps along the way; Kopec hasn’t yet thrown a pitch for the Mustangs.
Early on, the team discovered an arm injury that Kopec had suffered the previous spring. The issue wasn’t as much its severity, but how he had been rehabbing, according to Tawney.
“Unfortunately, in Spain, they don’t know how to rehab elbows as well as knees (typical soccer injuries),” Tawney said. “He really wasn’t doing the right exercises for pitching.”
Kopec began a specialized throwing program in January, but it has delayed his Stevenson debut by a few weeks. He’s also been dealing with the inevitable learning curve, especially on the field.
“The speed of the game, the drills, the intensity on a daily basis is all new to him,” Tawney said. “English is also his third language behind Spanish and French, so there are times we have to slow down, so he picks up on everything. But he has done a good job.”
Overall, Tawney expects Kopec to be an impact player when he can get into a game, which should be fairly soon. Meanwhile, his teammates seem to enjoy having him around, asking plenty of questions about Spain — mostly about the girls, weather and food.
Kopec says he’s hoping to serve as an example for others to not quit and keep pursuing goals that might seem impossible.
He believes he is living his dream – the American dream with an international twist.
BaltimoreBaseball.com’s Top Performers of the Week
Taylor Bloom, RHP, University of Maryland
Jr./Crofton, Md./Riverdale Baptist HS
Bloom was phenomenal for the Terps in Saturday’s start against sixth-ranked North Carolina State. The 6-foot, 195 pound righty threw a season-high seven innings and struck out five while allowing two runs. It was Bloom’s best outing of the young season; his first two starts lasted just five innings combined.
Pete Grasso, RHP, Salisbury University
Sr./Wilmington, Del./A.I. du Pont HS
Grasso was a big part of the Seagulls’ home sweep of Dickinson College on Sunday. The 6-foot-1, 180-pound righty struck out eight of the 22 batters he faced. Grasso also swung the bat well, finishing the day with four hits in nine plate appearances. He added an RBI and a couple of runs scored.
Billy Griffin, LHP, Washington College
Sr./Middletown, Md./Middletown HS
Griffin, one of our 12 players to watch in the first “College Corner,” excelled Saturday against Dean College. He struck out a career best 14 batters in seven shutout innings as the Shoremen won, 10-2. He was named Shoreman of the Week and Centennial Conference Pitcher of the Week
Moments worth mentioning
Johns Hopkins had quite the weekend as co-host of the Baltimore Invitational. Due to frigid temperatures and high winds, the Blue Jays played only two games, both Sunday. Down 5-4 with two outs in the bottom of the ninth against top-ranked Cortland State, third baseman Mike Smith smacked a two-run, walk-off homer. The Blue Jays then fell behind second-ranked Keystone College, 6-1 through four innings, before rallying to win, 7-6, in a contest shortened by darkness. In one doubleheader, the Blue Jays beat the top two teams in Division 3, capturing both in dramatic fashion. … Maryland also had an impressive weekend at the USA Baseball complex in Cary, N.C., sweeping the University of Notre Dame on Friday, sixth-ranked North Carolina State on Saturday and the University of Dayton on Sunday. The Terrapins played superbly in all facets of the game, outscoring their opponents 24-7, posting three quality starts and getting wins from starters Bloom (Riverdale Baptist) and Blohm (Archbishop Spalding). … Coppin State picked up its first win of the season in a four-game, three-day tournament held last weekend against Harvard University and Lafayette College at the Washington Nationals Academy in D.C. After starting the tournament with three losses, the Eagles turned to freshman Quinn Gleed. He allowed just one run while striking out six in seven strong innings. For more on the Coppin program, read last week’s College Corner. … Towson University picked up a thrilling victory in Catonsville on Wednesday, beating host UMBC, 7-3, in 11 innings. Sophomore catcher Trey Martinez hit a three-run homer in the top of the 11th to lead the Tigers to victory.
Matchup to watch
After three straight weekends on the road, the University of Maryland Terrapins finally will play a home weekend series in 2017. The Terps will host Bryant (R.I.) University for three games beginning Friday at 2 p.m. They’ll also play Saturday afternoon at 2 and Sunday at 1 p.m. The Terps will likely send out starters Brian Shaffer, Taylor Bloom and Tyler Blohm, in that order. Maryland enters the weekend winners of five straight following a dismal weekend in Baton Rouge two weeks ago, when they were swept by LSU.