There’s the well-known parable in the Bible about the prodigal son. He decides one day to ask his father for his share of the inheritance so he can go out and live the way he wants to. Though his father knows it’s unwise, he agrees. Flush with newfound wealth, the son heads out into the world. At first he’s living well, but the son’s money dries up fast and his circumstances take a turn for the worse.
It’s not unlike a young baseball player who gets taken high in the draft and is suddenly richer than he has ever been. He suddenly has money and recognition before he has played a professional inning. There are a lot of stories of guys who have flamed out quickly because the ability as a young man to manage this kind of thing just isn’t there.
Michael Kopech wasn’t like that. Not quite. But the experience he had, of leaving home and heading out into the world suddenly more well-known and well off than he had been before, contains at least a few parallels. He was a first-round draft pick out of high school in 2014 and awarded a $1.6 million signing bonus after being selected by Boston with the 33rd pick. But it was long before Kopech was quickly recognized as much for dating reality star Brielle Biermann and later marrying actress Vanessa Morgan, as he was for his pitching. Before he even reached the majors, Kopech was navigating celebrity fame.
We have to be careful though, because as Robert Frost once warned a group of college students in his 1931 talk “Education by Poetry,” all comparison breaks down somewhere. The things that turn the prodigal son’s journey back toward home are different than Kopech.
But the end result looks very similar.
These days, roughly two years removed from his short marriage to Morgan, Kopech isn’t in the tabloids or making appearances on any red carpets. His name gets in the headlines almost only for his pitching. Before White Sox games, he’s most often sitting at his locker reading quietly. Usually it’s his Bible he bought last winter.
“It’s just something I’m trying to make a part of my daily routine,” Kopech told CHGO recently. “I try to read from the Bible or something intentional and keep myself grounded. In a situation like this where you feel like you’re taking the stage, it’s a lot easier to come back to some words of wisdom and some truth.”
How he got that Bible has a lot to do with an experience Kopech described as feeling like coming home. For him, it started with a small church in Blaine, Washington this offseason.
In the story of the prodigal son, the main character decides to come back home after he has blown through all of his money. After living large for a while, the son has been reduced to pennilessness. He lives in a pig sty and shares their slop for his food. Reduced to such a lowly state, the son realizes he would be better off even living as a servant in his father’s house, so he heads home.
This is probably where the metaphor breaks down, at least a little. Kopech’s situation was never that bad. But he has dealt with a lot, all the same. Tommy John surgery in 2018 shortly after making his major league debut, choosing to sit out the 2020 season because of concerns he wouldn’t be ready after Tommy John surgery, the short marriage to Morgan. During that period, Kopech said he felt far from the kind of person he wanted to be.
“I think I was living a life of seeking to be sought after. To have life on this level of idolatry,” Kopech said. “That’s stressful to put that upon yourself because you’re not supposed to live that way. And I truly believe that now.”
Kopech’s marriage to Morgan in 2020 did lead to the birth of his son, River, in January 2021. His son was the reason Kopech and his girlfriend, Morgan Eudy, were in Washington last winter. In order to visit him across the border in Canada, Kopech wanted a place close by, so they spent the offseason in Blaine.
Kopech and Eudy were expecting a child together at the time, and the two of them were feeling the need to make church attendance a regular part of their lives again. Kopech grew up Catholic in Texas, but as his baseball career progressed when he was young, getting to church on Sundays became less and less frequent and more or less stopped when Kopech was around 10 years old.
“Unfortunately we just never made the decision to sacrifice a Sunday of baseball for a Sunday service. I think unintentionally because of that I put baseball at the forefront of my life instead of God,” Kopech said.
But last winter with the baseball lockout still in its early stages, there was time and opportunity to focus on other things. Many baseball players like Kopech struggle with a sense of identity outside of baseball, especially when so much of their youth is spent devoted to the sport.
“It’s what we do, it’s a huge part of our lives, it’s our career, but that’s not what makes us who we are,” teammate Lucas Giolito said.
Giolito has a similar path to Kopech’s. He grew up in southern California and was a first-round draft pick out of high school. Like Kopech, Giolito came to the White Sox via trade in 2016.
“I think a lot of younger guys, top prospects – I was one of them – it’s like, ‘My identity is a pitcher’ but that’s not real world. You learn and grow, and he’s done a lot of that,” Giolito said.
In hindsight, Kopech said that growth for him started with deleting his social media accounts in late 2019. He says now he couldn’t have explained at the time why he was doing it, but with the benefit of being a few years removed from having a social media presence, he can see more clearly the difference in himself. The main thing being how it affected his self-perception.
John Updike called fame “a mask that eats into the face.” In his 1962 book The Image, Daniel Boorstin said, “The very agency which first makes the celebrity in the long run inevitably destroys him.” Eventually fame can make a person become so consumed by preserving the image projected of themselves that they lose the ability to be anyone at all.
“It just takes a lot of energy for one, but two, people start to look at you that way, and you start to believe those people,” Kopech said. “It becomes a hard cycle to get out of. It just seemed like I have this life in front of me that grew for me who I was and so on, and it seems appealing because it seems easier.
“There’s a different center of my universe that I center my world around, and if I make that myself, then it starts becoming a very dark and lonely world.”
The most significant step back toward home, Kopech said, happened at Birch Bay Bible Community Church in Blaine. That’s where he and Eudy decided to go one Sunday last winter. That’s also where they met Ed Boschman. That’s why Kopech has the Bible at his locker now.
Boschman and his wife are retired, and they spend a lot of Sunday mornings volunteering at Birch Bay Bible. The Sunday Kopech and Eudy came in, Boschman was the one to greet them. He didn’t recognize who Kopech was, but Boschman struck up a conversation before the service. Talk eventually lead to what Kopech does for a living. “I’m a pitcher,” Kopech told Boschman, who then asked who he played for, not expecting Kopech meant the major leagues.
“And he’s kind of sheepish about it, ‘Oh the Chicago White Sox,’ and I’m like ‘What?!?’” Boschman said. “I started throwing some zingers. I’m like ‘Ok, how fast can you throw, dude?’”
The big question came after the service though.
“I said to him, ‘Michael, I’m going to throw a wild card at you here. In the past, I’ve had the joy of being connected to a pro athlete. I was on his prayer team. Do you have anything like a prayer team?’” Boschman recalled. “He goes, ‘No, I don’t have anything like that at all.’ He started telling me I haven’t been very active in my spiritual journey, maybe wandering a bit. I said, ‘Are you interested in getting that back on track?’ He said ‘I absolutely am.’”
Boschman and Kopech started meeting regularly for lunch. They ate, talked, and prayed. In the process, Kopech came to see Boschman as an anchor in the journey he was on. They still talk here and there now, even as Kopech is navigating through the demands of the baseball season.
The 2022 season has not been an entirely smooth one, either. Mostly because his team has a whole continues to struggle to play up to preseason expectations. But also because Kopech has transitioned this year to being a full-time starting pitcher. In 18 starts so far, he has a 3.16 ERA and helped anchor the rotation in the first two months of the season with Giolito and Dylan Cease while Lance Lynn was recovering from an April knee surgery. Kopech will likely be tested going forward, as the White Sox are still pushing toward the top of the division, and he will be one of the rotation arms needed for that push and for a possible postseason run.
That’s the stuff he is built to handle, though. Kopech has always been supremely talented. In the past, his performance had always been more affected by what was going on off of the field, according to Kopech.
“I think there’s a sense of peace within, knowing that as big as that stage may feel, it’s not even close to the biggest stage,” he said. “At a certain point in my life, that felt like the biggest stage. It takes a whole load off of myself to realize that there’s something else in control and someone else in control. There’s a lot of rest in that.”
Now, a newfound closeness with God and another son born in May has Kopech pitching with a different drive and sense of purpose. He sees his work on the mound as an opportunity to reflect what is happening in his personal life. It’s also a chance to model for his children. Fatherhood has helped shape his self-identity in the same way that going to church has. Where he would once have strictly defined himself as a pitcher, Kopech has a fuller sense of purpose these days.
“I want my children to look at me the way I look at my father,’ Kopech said. “He’s a great example of how to be a man in this world and how to put others above yourself tirelessly.”
The effects of Kopech’s work on his inner self are hard to ignore. Yes, he’s pitching well, but teammates take even more notice of the change they are seeing in the man when he is not on the mound.
“As far as maturity and growth, not as a baseball player, but as a human being, he’s shown the highest levels of it that I’ve seen over the last few years of any of my friends,” Giolito said. “He’s been through a lot, and he’s learned every step of the way.
“It’s just awesome to see him doing what he does on the field, knowing that road he’s been down.”
That road started gradually, probably before Kopech was even a teenager. It accelerated when he was drafted. It has taken him time to get his identity back in sync with where it was before, when he was younger. Before he was foisted into the public eye, and not just for his talent on the mound. Kopech seems to have fully left behind the trappings of his old lifestyle. Even at just 26, his demeanor now projects a centeredness and strong sense of self that comes from a challenging path. He’s what Cease called “fiery and cerebral.” The former shows when Kopech is on the mound, but off of it, he is reserved and contemplative.
“I think that the early years took him on a journey which in some ways might have been inevitable because of all of the notoriety and the capacity of a gifted, wealthy, good-looking dude,” Boschman said. “I think that was all part of his early journey. I think while he was living it, he may well have gotten a kick out of it. I think when he looks back on those early years now, his perspective is different.”
The greatest part of the story of the prodigal son is what happens when he gets back home. Instead of being there waiting to scold him and say he told him so, his father wraps him in a hug and throws a party to welcome him back home. Kopech said going to church in Blaine on Sundays felt like that. Like coming back to something he had mostly left behind when he was young.