J. Lopez eager to pass 1st test

Displaced catcher says he's `excited' by challenge, wants to end career an Oriole

February 16, 2006|By JEFF ZREBIEC | JEFF ZREBIEC,SUN REPORTER

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- A smiling Javy Lopez arrived at the Orioles' spring training facility yesterday and immediately thrust himself into his new role.

Pounding the pocket of a new first baseman's mitt that he had just pulled from a package at his locker, Lopez bent down and got into a fielding position as if a sharply hit ground ball were headed in his direction. A look of satisfaction on his face, Lopez placed the glove back on the top shelf of his locker and joked that it would become a Gold Glove.

"I feel kind of excited about it because it's going to be a challenge for me," Lopez said about transitioning from catcher to first base. "If I don't do well, I am going to be in trouble. It's a must do well for me. I'll be totally prepared for it."

In his first comments since the Orioles signed catcher Ramon Hernandez, officially displacing him as starting catcher, Lopez acknowledged that he still feels a level of frustration with his uncertain future with the Orioles and remains hopeful that the club will offer him a contract extension once he proves adept at first base.

But unlike his stance in the offseason, when his agent suggested that the 35-year-old would welcome a trade, Lopez said yesterday that he doesn't want to be anywhere but in Baltimore and that he refuses to be a distraction.

"I want to finish my career in Baltimore," said Lopez, who said he hopes to play two more years after this season, the last in the three-year, $22.5 million contract he signed with the Orioles in December 2003.

"I don't want to be the guy that wants to play for so many different teams before you retire. I feel very comfortable here with the Orioles. I have family living in Baltimore. I have my kids in Atlanta, which is a short trip from Baltimore. I can't complain about the organization, my teammates, the coaching staff. They've been so great to me."

Lopez didn't always feel this way. When Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo phoned him from baseball's winter meetings in early December, informing Lopez that the club was in negotiations with Hernandez, Lopez said that signing another catcher was the "last move I expected the Orioles to do," and he wondered if he still had a place with the club.

He was fine moving to first base, because he recognized that it could help extend his career. But it irked him that the Orioles wanted him to change positions in the final year of his contract.

"I didn't hear from the Orioles on whether they were going to give me an extension or not, whether I am going to be a first baseman or a DH full time," said Lopez, who will likely be the club's backup catcher, spelling Hernandez. "Spring training was right around the corner, and I had no idea what my position was going to be for the Orioles. That's when the trade rumors started."

Lopez said his fears subsided after Orioles executive vice president Mike Flanagan and vice president Jim Duquette visited him in Atlanta in late January, and assured him that he was very much in the team's plans.

Now, Lopez's focus is learning the craft of a first baseman, a process that he hopes will be helped - not hindered - by his decision to play for his native Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic. Lopez has already talked to Jose Oquendo, the manager of the Puerto Rican team, who told him that he'll work with the former catcher at first, much like Oquendo did with St. Louis Cardinals converted first baseman Albert Pujols.

Lopez has played first base for just two innings in the major leagues. But given his disdain for being a designated hitter, Lopez knows his future with the club depends on how well he adapts to the new position. A day before the club's first workout, Lopez appeared primed for the challenge.

"As far as I know, they really want to keep me on the team and I am glad they want me to be here," Lopez said. "But anything can happen. At this point, I don't want to be traded. ... If it was going to happen, it was going to happen [in December]. Now that it didn't, I want to finish my career here."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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