No mistaking L. Lopez's turnaround

Newly acquired infielder recalls Single-A, 121 errors he committed in two years

July 16, 2002|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

The next ground ball that's hit to Luis Lopez will settle into much steadier hands than the ones he flashed during his first two professional seasons. Back then, it probably would have been bobbled, kicked or sailed over his first baseman. And he would have grimaced, shaken his head and waited for the next one.

That's how Lopez, whose contract was purchased Friday by the Orioles, made it through each of his 47 errors in 70 games with the Spokane Indians in 1988. And the 74 errors - that's not a misprint - in 127 games at Single-A Charleston of the South Atlantic League the next year.

Signed as a second baseman, Lopez was moved to shortstop by the San Diego Padres. "They saw that I had a pretty good arm and converted me," he said.

Too bad about the iron glove.

"Believe me, there were all kinds of errors," he said, breaking into a wide grin. "There were no excuses. There were throwing errors, booted balls, everything."

Reminded of his outrageous total in 1989, Lopez said, "I'll tell you what, there were more than 74. But that's part of the process of becoming a major-league player."

At times, so is recovering from an injury. Lopez appeared in only 14 games with Single-A Riverside before undergoing knee surgery and missing the rest of the season. That was enough time to commit six more errors, but he kept moving up the Padres' organizational ladder while also moving to his natural position.

"I went to Double-A and I think I cut them down to 20 or so [actually 26]. That's a big difference, huh?" he said. "I guess it's the hard work. The talent was there. It was just a matter of going out there and performing."

A native of Cirda, Puerto Rico, Lopez credits his second manager, the late Jack Krol, for not losing faith in him and instilling confidence even as the errors mounted at a comical rate. Lopez once committed six of them in a doubleheader, which didn't exactly endear him to the team's pitching staff.

"He'd keep me out there and say I was going to play. And I wanted to play. It's a game and you're supposed to have fun in a game," Lopez said.

"I went to spring training after '89 and I felt for sure that I was going back to that league, but he told me, `That was the end of the innocence. You've grown up now and I won't see you. You're not going back with me.' From that moment on, I took off."

He touched down in San Diego during the 1993 season and appeared in one game of the National League Division Series three years later. Rather than find a home with the Padres, he was traded twice within 15 days during spring training in 1997, and again in January 2000. Unhappy with utility infielder Alex Arias at Rochester, the Orioles signed Lopez as a replacement once the Milwaukee Brewers designated him for assignment.

Lopez, 31, was in the Orioles' starting lineup for two straight games before he returned to the bench last night. Manager Mike Hargrove used him as the designated hitter Saturday, and the second baseman and leadoff hitter on Sunday. He hadn't been that busy in a while - not since Milwaukee went from giving him 222 at-bats last year to making him disappear.

Confronted with a roster crunch, the Brewers placed him on the disabled list coming out of spring training. Lopez confirmed that he injured a quadriceps muscle but didn't expect to miss significant time. He was activated long enough to collect eight at-bats over two weeks before requesting his release and being signed by the Orioles to a Triple-A contract last month. He has committed just 16 errors in 178 games since 2000.

"Basically, I wasn't hurt in Milwaukee so the six weeks were like a spring training for me," said Lopez, who also has played for the New York Mets in parts of nine major-league seasons.

"I did tweak my quad, but it wasn't bad enough for me to miss weeks of the season. I was ready to go in a few days."

And ready for any ball hit to him.

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