L. Lopez proves a power as able utility man

ORIOLES PLUS

On 4th team, he impresses as `a veteran guy who knows what his role is'

Orioles Plus

August 18, 2002|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

Orioles infielder Luis Lopez calls Sandy Alomar Sr. "The Godfather" because Alomar not only raised two sons into big-leaguers, but also watched out for everybody, especially the Puerto Ricans.

Lopez bears a striking resemblance to Alomar's son Roberto, and it was evident when they were both coming through the minor-league ranks in the San Diego Padres' organization.

"As a young player, he had the same kind of body as Robbie," said Alomar Sr., who now coaches first base for the Chicago Cubs. "They were the same kind of player, switch-hitters who played the infield. He had all the mannerisms Robbie had. He could swing the bat and play the field. The only thing is he wasn't as fast as Robbie."

It's not easy getting compared to one of this generation's finest players.

Roberto Alomar, who played with the Orioles from 1996 to 1998, is considered one of the best second basemen of all time.

Lopez has found his own niche as a utility player, and the Orioles are his fourth major-league team.

In a recent four-day span, Lopez hit a grand slam against the Minnesota Twins and then came off the bench in Detroit on consecutive nights to deliver pinch hits in games when the rest of the Orioles looked hopelessly overmatched.

Defensively, Lopez helped the Orioles get by without sure-handed shortstop Mike Bordick. Splitting time between second base and shortstop, over 21 games, Lopez had committed one error entering the weekend.

"When I show up to the ballpark, I expect to play," Lopez said. "But if I'm not in the lineup, I'll be ready whenever they need me. I think that's the right attitude you have to have in these games if you're a bench player."

Orioles manager Mike Hargrove never has to tell Lopez to be ready for a late-game pinch-hitting assignment. By the time the sixth or seventh inning rolls around, Lopez is usually somewhere in the dugout with a bat in his hand.

Hargrove remembers seeing the same things out of Wayne Kirby and Alvaro Espinoza when he was managing the Cleveland Indians.

"He's a veteran guy who knows what his role is," Hargrove said of Lopez.

Orioles vice president for baseball operations Syd Thrift said the club was trying to trade for Lopez before the Milwaukee Brewers released him. Lopez was caught in a roster crunch in Milwaukee. They had no room for him, so they kept him on the disabled list for six weeks with the slightest of quadriceps strains.

Lopez asked the Brewers for his release, and they finally gave it to him on June 20. Thrift signed Lopez to a minor-league contract and sent him to Triple-A Rochester.

"I wanted him to go there for two weeks, and it was going to be one way or the other," Thrift said. "After that, we were either going to release him or bring him to the big leagues."

Lopez hit .324 at Rochester, and the Orioles promoted him on July 12. Thrift said he prefers to have veterans in the utility role. Rookie Mike Moriarty began the season in that role and hit .188. Thrift signed former Philadelphia Phillies infielder Alex Arias, but he never made it out of Rochester.

"When I look at a player, I say what can this player do to win a game?" Thrift said. "Can he pinch hit? Can he steal a base? Can he make the play on defense? This guy [Lopez] can help you win a game."

Lopez has come a long way since the Padres signed him in 1987. He was part of a long line of Puerto Rican players to go through their system, including Roberto Alomar, Sandy Alomar Jr., Carlos Baerga and Ricky Bones.

In his first professional season, Lopez made 47 errors at Rookie-level Spokane and then made 74 the next year at Single-A Charleston. Alomar Sr. reminded Lopez that Roberto had committed 36 errors his first year at Charleston in 1985.

Roberto, of course, has gone on to win 10 Gold Glove awards.

"The good thing about Robbie, and people don't realize it, is he makes all the routine plays," Lopez said. "He does it all. He makes the tough plays, he makes the routine plays, and he's the type of guy who can produce anywhere you put him in the lineup."

Lopez's own progression was halted a bit when he tore a ligament in his elbow in 1995 and needed Tommy John surgery. But he played for the Padres during their run to the National League West title in 1996 and then played three seasons for the New York Mets.

After 2 1/2 seasons with the Brewers, Lopez likes his new situation with the Orioles.

"I would love to stay here," he said. "It's a great team. It reminds me of what the Mets were building in New York. I think the main thing is the chemistry of the team, and the coaching staff. When you have a coaching staff that believes in you, the sky's the limit."

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