A changed Michael Kopech: ‘I had to ask myself: Who am I without baseball? I couldn’t answer it’

The White Sox pitcher has a surgically repaired right arm and a spiritually renewed mind.

SHARE A changed Michael Kopech: ‘I had to ask myself: Who am I without baseball? I couldn’t answer it’
White Sox pitcher Michael Kopech gets ready to work at the team’s spring-training facility Wednesday.

White Sox pitcher Michael Kopech gets ready to work at the team’s spring-training facility Wednesday.

John Antonoff/Sun-Times

GLENDALE, Ariz. — It can be hard to step out of the space people have built for you, hard to find a place not defined by their impressions of you, their expectations of you.

What was Michael Kopech 17 months ago? He was his right arm. That was it. He was a 100 mph-plus fastball. He was the White Sox’ future.

He knew it. We reveled in it.

And then he didn’t know it anymore. Tommy John surgery on that one-in-a-million arm in September 2018 changed the whole man a lot more than it did a body part.

“I had a lopsided perspective of life,’’ he said at the Sox’ spring-training facility. “I had a perspective of life where I can go get anything I want. If I work for anything, I can go get anything, and my successes are going to prove that. When it was taken away from me, I had to do some soul-searching. It made me kind of go on this journey of what I thought I needed to find. With that, my perception changed. My idea of who I was changed.

“I had to ask myself the question: Who am I without baseball? I couldn’t answer that question. Now that I feel like I’m finally comfortable with who I am, baseball is just a part of who I am. It’s not who I am.’’

Who is he? A baseball player and much more. He knows that now. Following the surgery, he was left with his thoughts and his rehab for months. When he came out the other side, he had profoundly changed. If everything goes as planned, he’ll start the season in the minors and eventually be called up to the big-league club. He thinks the surgery and the work that came after it will make him a better pitcher. He said he feels “as good as I ever have’’ on the mound.

Off the mound, with bouts of depression and anxiety behind him and a recent marriage to actress Vanessa Morgan bringing him more happiness, he might be better than ever.

“I’m trying to be who I think is going to make me the better person,’’ he said. “And what that comes down to really is being the best human I can be. What kind of human can I be and how can I impact those closest to me and those around me? How do I interact with you on a day-to-day basis? It’s not about what I do or the successes or failures that I have, but it’s about how I am when I am with people.’’

There are Sox fans, and possibly some Sox employees, who were just fine with the old Kopech, the one who reared back and let fly. The one with the shiniest of futures. The one with baseball answers to baseball questions. The former first-round pick, one of the centerpieces of the Sox’ rebuild. The pitcher who arrived in the big leagues in August 2018 with enough hype to power a midsized city. The success. What he had always been.

Too bad. Don’t expect him to blast fastballs past hitters in the first inning anymore. He thinks the power is still there, but he said a more patient approach and better location on his pitches will make him more effective.

He has a surgically repaired right arm and a spiritually renewed mind.

“I was someone who probably lived a little too much for the things in life rather than the moments in life,’’ he said. “After the injury, I didn’t have the things that made me happy anymore. I needed something else to keep me motivated.

“I didn’t know what that was. I went searching. I couldn’t find it. I came to the realization that I was searching externally a little too much. I had to do a little bit of soul-searching to find out who I was. I can’t really put a word on it, but to those who are able to understand what I’m talking about, it’s God, for lack of a better word.’’

The seeker is not seeking a church. He grew up going to one but said he too often felt confused.

“Not that I have anything against the church,’’ he said. “I’ve found a way to have a relationship [with God] without stepping into a church anymore, without feeling like I need to prove myself to people around me.

“That’s come to me through prayer and meditation and just making sure I’m not necessarily externally seeking, if that makes sense. I’m more inwardly seeking and making sure I’m in control of who I am and understanding who I am and not trying to be who everyone wants me to be.’’

Big stuff for a 23-year-old.

“I know this is temporary,’’ he said, nodding to team’s spring-training headquarters and the experiences that come with it. “I know this isn’t my life. I know it’s a career that can be taken away tomorrow or it can last 20 years. But at the end of the day, who I’m going to be isn’t dependent on the White Sox or baseball or anything like that.’’

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