Nothing is worse to John Coppolella than mediocrity. Not even a last-place finish. Like baseball's version of Ricky Bobby, Coppolella seems to live by the theory, "If you ain't first, you're last."
Apparently, working for George M. Steinbrenner rubbed off on the Braves' general manager.
While Atlanta's 188 losses over the past two seasons were "painful" in the GM's own words, they were necessary. The Braves used that time to transform one of the game's worst farm systems into one of its best, giving Coppolella great hope as his team prepares to move into its new ballpark next month.
MLB.com spent time with Coppolella at George M. Steinbrenner Field -- his old stomping grounds -- before a Yankees-Braves game, discussing his time with the Boss, his evolution as an executive, what rebuilding really feels like and why he was so excited to sign the oldest player in baseball.
MLB.com: Much to your parents' dismay, you turned down a six-figure job with Intel when you graduated college, taking an $18,000 internship with the Yankees instead. Was that a leap of faith, or did you figure that the Intel-like job would always be there for you?
Coppolella: It was something where I felt like you only get one life and I felt that Intel-type job would always be there. It was something where I didn't want to wake up at 45 years old and think, "What if I took that job with the Yankees when I was 21; what could have happened?"
MLB.com: The Braves finished 20-10 last season, winning 12 of their final 14 games. Did that leave the team with an excitement about 2017?
Coppolella: Yeah. We feel like we're on the right track. We are going through all this pain; with John Hart, John Schuerholz, Terry McGuirk, these three men, we made a vow that we were going to go through the pain, we were going to make it short-lived, we were going to try like hell not to lose 100 games and try to build up the best farm system that we could. It was really tough. Seeing us go from 29 to one (farm system rankings) in two years has never been done. We want to stay at one for a long time; that's a source of pride for us. They made a vow and it got dark sometimes. We started out 0-9 and 9-28; even at that record, we knew we were a little bit better than 9-28. As the season went on, the big changes for us were the trade for Matt Kemp and the callup of Dansby Swanson. We felt at the end of the year like we were a team that was playing really well; the thing we lacked was starting pitching.
MLB.com: With the new ballpark opening this year, I know you said you have to be patient; but was there extra pressure to try to get things turned around or at least get things better by the time the new park opens?
Coppolella: When you have a new park open, you want to win. Everybody wants to win. You don't want to have a bad year where the fans see this great park and then they see a really bad team on the field. That being said, we want to win every year. Starting out 0-9 and 9-28 isn't fun. People can talk about, "We will do a rebuild," but if you ask other GMs who have gone through this the way I have, it is painful.
There are nights where you're sick to your stomach. There are mornings where you don't want to go on the phone or go do any kind of interview. You fire your friends; firing Fredi (Gonzalez) was not fun. All that stuff. It sucks. Rebuilding sucks. I don't want to rebuild. We want to create a foundation here to where we don't have to ever rebuild. We are out on windows where we can be good for the next two or three years, but then we'll suck for the next five or six. We want waves of young players coming the way that John Schuerholz and Bobby Cox had it with the Braves in the 1990s to where there was always someone else there.
We ran out of players in 2014; part of the reason why we finished 27-40 is we didn't have any good players to call up. Part of the reason we finished 27-40 is that at the Trade Deadline when we tried to trade for players, nobody liked anybody in our farm system. That formula isn't going to work. Taking the safe college player, trading away good, young, upside players -- we're out on that. That isn't going to work. That isn't going to get us to where we are. I don't care if we have a winning season; I don't care about any of it. I care about World Series championships. Think about this: The Braves haven't won a playoff series -- one series! -- in 16 years. What are we doing? I don't care if we're .500; I want to win playoff series and I want to win championships. All of us want to do that.
MLB.com: Is that something you learned working for George Steinbrenner?
Coppolella: Yes. You know what? Even if you were in the World Series and lost, it was still a failure. If you don't have that mindset, why are you even playing? Why are you in this? If you don't want to win the World Series, why are you even showing up at work? What is your goal? Are you there just to make money or have some fancy job title with a cool workplace? No. Come to win. You play everything to win. I want to win. John Hart wants to win. John Schuerholz, Terry, all of these guys want to win. We haven't won a playoff series in 16 years, so we still have a lot of work to do.
MLB.com: You just have to find three Hall of Fame starting pitchers and you'll be good to go. It's just that easy, right?
Coppolella: (laughs) Yeah, that would be great.
MLB.com: Eighteen months ago, you said, "We're not tanking ... There is a method to this madness. Judge our trades in two to three years, not now." You're 18 months removed; how do you judge those trades? Have they worked out the way you hoped? How long do you usually wait to judge a trade?
Coppolella: We don't want to sound cocky, but you're in the game -- see what we've done. We feel pretty good about where it's headed in such a short period of time. We don't have all the answers and we still have a long way to go. It's real easy to kick people when they're down, when they're 0-9, when things aren't going right. That's when you find out who are your true friends, who are the people that care about you and that are still going to stay objective.
Not even friends, really. It's just kind of, are there people that are going to try and feed on the dead carcass, or are they going to say, "Look, it took the Cubs five years, it took Houston seven years, it took the Royals nine years, it took the Pirates 20 years. Why don't we just give them an hour, you know? Just let them have a little time and let's see before we pass judgement and say that nobody knows what they're doing and this is the worst thing ever.' Again, we haven't won a playoff series in 16 years. What are we chasing after here?
MLB.com: How have your views or philosophies toward the game changed at all, if any, since the start of your career?
Coppolella: When I first started out, I was probably 90 percent analytics, 10 percent scouting. I didn't really know much about scouting; I had not scouted. As I got more into scouting through guys like Gordon (Blakeley) and Damon (Oppenheimer), I probably swung the other way where I was probably 70 percent scouting, 30 percent analytics. Right now, for me personally, I'm probably 65 percent scouting, 35 percent analytics. I feel like we're so heavy in analytics that there's value to be found through scouting because it's somewhat undervalued.
MLB.com: Analytics have found their way to fans now, as well. MLB's Statcast™ has made some of these metrics more public over the past couple years. Do you think it has changed the way fans look at the game?
Coppolella: Probably. I don't know if it's good or bad. I was always real good with numbers; when I was 3, I was doing ninth-grade math, basically. But when I watch the game, I love the game. It's great that guys can take the route that's 78 percent efficient; that's fine. I just like to watch a guy make the play. I just like to watch the game. If that's what our fans like, great. If they just like to watch the game, too -- I'm not saying my way is right or their way is wrong or anything, I just always loved the way the game was played.
MLB.com: One of your notable offseason acquisitions was a 43-year-old starting pitcher. What most attracted you to Bartolo Colon?
Coppolella: John Hart had a long history with him, signed him 25 years ago. John knows who this person is; I've seen it firsthand as he beat us with the Mets year after year. He's a great teammate, somebody you can count on for innings, and he has a chance -- he's 13 wins away from the D.R. record for starting pitchers, 16 away from the Latin record for starting pitchers. Say that he can hang in there for two or three more years, he has a shot at the Hall of Fame. This is a special guy.
Guys just love having him on the team. There's a lot of good things. He will help our young guys in two ways. One, he will help teach them about the game. If I'm a young Braves pitcher and I see this guy at 43 years old, what I'm saying to myself is, "How do I do what he's doing? Why is he still in the game at 43? He must be doing a lot of things right, let me find out what."
Number two, it will let us push guys back. We don't have to force-feed starters. We started (Roberto Hernandez) three times last year. Names of players who have come through, it's embarrassing for Braves fans. It is for us, too. It just is what it is; that's where we were. We chose for that period of two years to put our money into our young players knowing that there would be a payoff. So you go and take the beating, you try to give opportunities to whomever was there, but the time for opportunities, the time to try out everything is past. It's over.
MLB.com: You have said, "You don't buy No. 1 starters, you grow them." Have you always believed that?
Coppolella: Yes. Look, we aren't going to be the team that's going to give $200 million to a free-agent pitcher. Whether I'm here for the next year or for the next 10 years or whatever, you want to leave the Braves in a better spot than when you got here. You want to create something special. Getting into bad contracts, tying up future payroll flexibility, that is not the way we want to go. All of these guys getting $200 million, they're on the wrong side of 30. They've thrown literally tens of thousands of pitches already. Why would we want to go that way? Why would we want to flush money down the toilet?
Mark Feinsand is an executive reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.