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September 20, 2019

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Columnist Dean Juipe: Opperman regains his footing

Dean Juipe's column appears Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. His boxing notebook appears Thursday. Reach him at [email protected] or 259-4084.

He's pertinent, what with everyone compiling year-end, decade-end and century-end lists as the millennium approaches.

But his name won't be on any of those lists, unless it's one that recognizes the greatest athletes in Clark County School District history or the finest athletes in America who had their potentially fantastic careers cut short by injury.

If there were a list of heartbreaking tales, that's where you would find the name of Danny Opperman.

It's Dan Opperman these days, the former Valley High pitcher having matured into a 31-year-old husband, father and law-school student at the University of New Mexico. That maturity came in the face of the appallingly bad luck that ruined his shot at athletic fame and its accompanying fortune.

He is a young man who not only deserved better but had a difficult time adjusting to his slighted fate, although he's at peace with it today.

He was a flamethrower who flamed out, and it was predictably crushing for someone so talented that the Los Angeles Dodgers selected him with the No. 4 pick in the 1987 amateur draft.

"I was a bitter, miserable person for a long time," Opperman said this week from his home in Albuquerque. "After being hurt and knowing my baseball career was over, I was not a pleasant person to be around.

"I definitely had a chip on my shoulder."

It was his right elbow that was his undoing, as ligament damage that came about during the 1987 state playoffs proved to be marginally uncorrectable in spite of surgery and years of therapy. While he didn't retire from baseball until the spring of 1993, Opperman's professional baseball odyssey was one interrupted journey after another.

He was unable to play in '87 after signing with the Dodgers and being assigned to their Rookie League team, and he also missed all of 1988. He played in '89 and '90 but was limited to a half season in '91 and was active for only one month in 1992.

Despite his best efforts and a fierce competitiveness, he just couldn't throw the ball. His velocity, once breathtaking and as eye popping as anyone will ever see at the high-school level, was gone.

His pro career peaked at the triple-A level with the Pacific Coast League's Albuquerque Dukes.

No one deserves to have the carrot yanked out from in front of him like it was with Opperman.

"I don't know why it happened and of course I wish it never did," he said, turning philosophical for a moment, "but my career was going to end one day, anyway. It's just that mine ended sooner rather than later. Like it or not, I only had a short stint in professional baseball."

Understandably, he didn't like it after it became apparent he couldn't continue.

"To this day, I'm still coping with it," he said. "The hard part is that I had to leave the game not because of a lack of talent, but because of something related to luck.

"I'd say it took a good year or a year and a half after I retired before I even came close to getting over it. All that time I kept trying to get healthy, even though I knew in my heart I couldn't do it."

He was angry during those trying times.

"I couldn't even watch a ball game on TV," he said. "I'd see somebody out there and I'd say to myself, 'I was better than that.'

"If I tried to watch a game, I'd just get angrier and angrier."

It didn't help that he had developed a partial dependency on codeine, which he had been using to suppress the pain of his elbow injury, nor did it help that he could do anything in life "except throw a baseball."

Of course throwing a baseball was the one thing he wanted to do, the one thing that had brought him to prominence, and the one thing that could get him to Dodger Stadium.

"It was hard not feeling cheated or that I'd been deprived," he said. "It's still sort of hard today."

Give him credit for not imploding or throwing his life away in spite of the difficult "why me?" scenario that fate put him through. He set aside his anger and disillusionment to earn a degree in economics at New Mexico and went on to became a chef and later a manager at a four-star restaurant.

He also settled into married life with his wife, Lisa, an Albuquerque native he met while playing with the Dukes in 1992. They have now been married six years and he credits her with straightening him out.

They also have a son, now age 4.

Two years ago Opperman entered law school at UNM and he has one year remaining in his quest for that degree. "It's killing me," he says with a laugh of the rigors of studying law and its many tricky components.

Upon graduation he anticipates opening his own law practice, perhaps as a sports agent. While he and Lisa aren't adverse to relocating -- San Diego or Las Vegas top the possibilities -- he says he's comfortable in Albuquerque and may stay there.

His father passed away several years ago and his mother currently lives in Reno.

He's content in spite of not being able to participate in sports.

"I tried rec softball for a while, but that didn't work," Opperman said. "I was too competitive and it hurt my arm a little bit. I had to bag it."

These days Dan Opperman sounds chipper and is analytical toward his past. In many respects he's a remarkable person, rebounding as he has from a personal calamity that few of us can fully imagine or comprehend.

Blowing out his arm may have kept him off all these end-of-the-millennium lists that are currently in fashion, but he's No. 1 to those who remember his skill as a young pitcher and who appreciate where he is today.