Like most other institutions of its land, Coppell Middle School West can be a nightmarish place. If you're new, it's hell. If you're overweight, it's hell. If you're new and overweight....
Jason Stokes remembers everything. His first day...Feb. 12, 1995. The long brown table. The soggy french fries. The adjacent empty chairs. The mocking gestures and piercing taunts. The fact that for his entire first week—five long, humiliating days—nobody would sit next to him during lunch. He was not just the new kid, freshly removed from the comforts of his old home and school and friends in nearby Irving, Texas. Jason Stokes was the new fat kid. He was a seventh grader carrying 245 pounds and a 40-inch waist on a 5'10" body. "People called me lots of names," says Stokes, now 18. "Sometimes blimp, sometimes roly-poly. They always called me a fat s— -."
When other members of the Coppell High baseball team are around, Stokes acts like the typical image-is-everything adolescent, cracking self-deprecating jokes about his youthful obesity. But when they are gone—when he is speaking one-on-one in a gentle Texas twang—there is pain in his voice and sorrow in his green eyes. "I was never upset enough to want to leave school or try to beat someone up, but there were days I came home and whined," he says. "I think about it, and it still hurts a little."
After middle school Stokes's body changed. As a high school freshman he grew to 6'2". As a sophomore, 6'3". He began lifting weights. He kept growing but stopped expanding. Now Stokes is a sculptured 6'5", 230 pounds. He is the first baseman and No. 3 hitter for Coppell High, the state's No. 1 team through Sunday, with a record of 32-2. He had 24 home runs, 63 RBIs, a .549 batting average, 1.333 slugging percentage and has—on June 5—an awfully good shot at becoming a millionaire with a glittering future. "This is the best revenge I could think of," he says.
In the 39-year history of baseball's June amateur draft, only two first basemen—Ron Blomberg in 1967 and Al Chambers in '79—have been selected with the top pick. "There's nothing not to like about him," says Chad MacDonald, an Indians scout who has seen Stokes play more than a dozen times. "He's an above-average athlete, he has great size, plus-plus raw power, a feel for the bat head and, most important, true pitch recognition. You never see high schoolers who can recognize the pitch as soon as it's released. This kid can."
The Marlins, owners of the draft's first selection, recently sent a team of five scouts to work out Stokes. Twenty other clubs, including the Twins, the Cubs and the Royals (who possess the next three picks), have conducted similar sessions. Unlike last year, when Tampa Bay's decision about the top pick boiled down to two players (the Devil Rays selected Raleigh outfielder Josh Hamilton, after which Spring, Texas, pitcher Josh Beckett went No. 2 to the Marlins), this season's crop has personnel directors checking their lists twice, three times, four times—then ripping them up and starting all over again. Stokes is the best pure power hitter available...but is he more talented than David Espinosa, the speedy, slick-fielding shortstop from Miami's Gulliver Prep? Espinosa is a find...but how many catchers come along with the skills of Scott Heard, the strong-armed backstop from San Diego's Rancho Bernardo High? Heard is special...but Matt Harrington of Palmdale ( Calif.) High throws 98 mph. Do you pass up that type of heat?
"Obviously, I haven't seen most of the other players scouts are talking about," says Matt McFadden, Coppell's senior catcher, "but what I know is this: People come to see Jason play, and they walk away knowing they've never seen anything like it, and they probably never will."
At first Stokes's 24 homers (believed to be a Texas schoolboy record) seem somewhat tainted. The field at Coppell High is tiny—310 feet down the lines, 330 feet to dead center. Then you start hearing the stories. Around these parts, tales of Stokes's blasts have reached near Ruthian proportions. "Man, I saw him hit one ball that must've gone 600 feet," says McFadden during a recent practice.
"Naw, not 600," counters Zack Cherry, a scraggly senior pitcher. "Maybe 540 feet."
"No, no, no," insists McFadden. "Guy hit it 600 feet—at least."