Second chance was all Dopirak needed

Second chance was all Dopirak needed

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- It was Brian Dopirak's chance to save his career, and he felt like he was blowing it. Two years ago, he stepped into a batting cage at the Blue Jays' spring complex to show off his swing to a group of coaches and scouts and things were not going well.

Each time Dopirak brought the bat around, nerves crept in a little more.

He had just been released by the Cubs -- a stunning blow for Dopirak with only a few days left in Spring Training -- so the first baseman headed home with an uncertain future. Home for Dopirak happens to be Dunedin, Fla., where the Blue Jays train each year. Toronto contacted him and offered a tryout.

The pressure became overwhelming. Dopirak felt the eyes on him, and his hands began to shake.

"I don't think I've ever been as nervous in any situation in my entire life," Dopirak said. "I wanted to get picked up so bad. I still wanted to play. Everybody was around this tunnel. Man, I was so nervous. I threw the bat. I was shaking. I had tremors. I just wanted them to give me a chance."

Dopirak has come a long way since that tryout. This spring, the hulking first baseman is in the running for a spot on the Blue Jays' Opening Day roster, bringing him closer to a dream that hardly seemed realistic a few seasons ago. Dopirak's journey from highly touted high schooler to washed-up Minor Leaguer to big league hopeful has given him a new perspective.

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"You really find out how much you really love this game," Dopirak said.

That is because the game that seemed so easy at one point for Dopirak nearly had no place for him.

Dopirak was a star at Dunedin High School, collecting numerous records and helping the Falcons to a 32-1 record in 2002. The Cubs selected him in the second round of the '02 First-Year Player Draft, and the transition to pro ball went smooth. In '04, Dopirak mashed 39 homers and drove in 120 runs with Class A Lansing and was ranked 21st on Baseball America's top prospects list heading into the following season.

Success was all Dopirak knew, and he believed he was on a quick path to the Majors.

He had no reason to think otherwise.

"I was on the fast track," Dopirak said. "I was young, and a lot of people were saying a lot of things. At that time, I didn't know that I had to go through the learning curve that I had to go through in order to prepare myself to get to the big leagues. I'd always hit .300. I was always successful in high school."

That type of expectation is common among players drafted directly out of high school. Often, they do not experience rough slumps and have not learned how to cope with performing poorly. That can lead to a harsh reality check in their quest to make it on the big league stage.

"It's going to happen sooner or later," said Blue Jays assistant general manager Tony LaCava. "Whether it's in the Major Leagues or in the Minors, you're going to have failure in this game. Sometimes high school players have never had that. Sometimes they get all the way to the big leagues and have their first failure, and it's tough under that scrutiny to deal with it."

For Dopirak, things began to unravel in 2005.

That season, Dopirak hit just .235 with High A Daytona. Then, in 2006, Dopirak broke his left foot while running the bases in his first game with Double-A West Tennessee. When that campaign concluded, he had hit just .257 with one home run in 52 games. Things weren't much better in '07, when Dopirak hit .266 between stints with Daytona and West Tennessee.

Once a top prospect, Dopirak had slipped down the Cubs' organizational depth chart, leading to his release at the end of Spring Training in 2008. He left Arizona and headed home to Florida, receiving a phone call from the Blue Jays not long after his plane landed. Dopirak's second chance was going to come just down the street from where he grew up.

"It just felt right," Dopirak said.

The only problem was that the tryout did not go great.

Blue Jays hitting coach Dwayne Murphy, who was the organization's roving hitting instructor at the time, saw beyond the poorly hit pitches, though. Murphy saw a swing that needed work, but one that also came with loads of potential. He could also tell that the 6-foot-4 Dopirak was flustered.

"You can see somebody that's got a good swing," Murphy said. "And I could tell he was nervous."

"We went to the cage and just tweaked a little couple things here and there. The next day, he just came out and just smoked the ball. ... Ever since then, it's been a complete turnaround for the guy."
-- Hitting coach Dwayne Murphy

Murphy asked the Blue Jays' brass if he could have a second session to evaluate Dopirak, and the club honored the request. One day later, Dopirak headed back to Toronto's training center -- less than two miles from his old high school -- and something clicked.

"We went to the cage and just tweaked a little couple things here and there," Murphy said. "The next day, he just came out and just smoked the ball. I'm sure a lot of it had to do with him being more relaxed. Ever since then, it's been a complete turnaround for the guy."

Murphy worked with Dopirak on becoming less of a pull hitter, altering his hands to help drive the ball better to all fields. Over the past two years in the Blue Jays' farm system, the 26-year-old Dopirak has climbed through High A Dunedin, Double-A New Hampshire and Triple-A Las Vegas, putting up jaw-dropping numbers along the way.

Over 267 games since joining the Jays, all Dopirak has done is hit .311 with 56 home runs, 73 doubles and 203 RBIs, posting a .370 on-base percentage and a .550 slugging percentage. Over this past offseason, Dopirak teamed with a nutritionist and hit the gym, packing on 15 to 20 pounds of muscle. He also played winter ball in Venezuela, hitting .270 with seven homers and 32 RBIs in 35 games.

"I wanted to be somewhere where I wasn't comfortable," he said. "It was really good for me. It was all about preparing myself for this coming year."

Toronto placed Dopirak on its 40-man roster over the winter, and the club has given him a chance to fight for a spot on the roster as a part-time first baseman and designated hitter. This spring, Dopirak has hit .385 (5-for-13) through six games, and he knows he will have plenty more at-bats to show what he can do. That is something he was promised by the Blue Jays.

"They were really honest with me," Dopirak said. Manager Cito Gaston and general manager Alex Anthopoulos "came out and sat me down, which is really great, because a lot of guys haven't been exposed to that. I hadn't been exposed to that, either. It's really good because they let you know from Day One where you stand, instead of taking the field guessing every day.

"They sat me down, and they said that I'm going to get a lot of at-bats this spring, and a lot of it's going to be on performance and how I handle the bat and myself. Basically, just go out there and continue to do what I've been doing and things will work out."

Listening to Dopirak speak, he does not sound nervous at all.

"When I got this second chance," he said, "it was like, 'Man, I'm not looking back on this one.'"

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.