Oquendo happy to help J. Lopez adjust to first

Puerto Rico coach will tutor Oriole at Classic

Orioles Spring Report

March 06, 2006|By DAN CONNOLLY | DAN CONNOLLY,SUN REPORTER

JUPITER, Fla. -- Albert Pujols, the reigning National League Most Valuable Player and perhaps baseball's biggest star, strolls into the St. Louis Cardinals clubhouse at Roger Dean Stadium, and Jose Oquendo immediately points his finger at the superstar.

"That's the guy you have to ask," said Oquendo, the Cardinals' third base coach and infield instructor. "He would know best."

Oquendo spent 12 years in the big leagues with the New York Mets and Cardinals. In 1988, he became the first National Leaguer since 1918 to play every position, including pitcher, in one season. Two years later, he set the second-base record for highest fielding percentage (.996) and fewest errors (three).

These days, though, he's carving out a new legacy. He's the guy credited with helping Pujols make the transition from third baseman/corner outfielder to one of the better defensive first basemen in the NL.

"[Oquendo] wants to make sure everybody wins a Gold Glove on this team. He works hard at it," Pujols said. "That's why he used to be the best in playing defense and [why] he's the best infield coach I've ever seen in baseball."

The Orioles are hoping Pujols' assessment is right on. Because for the next three weeks Oquendo, who is managing Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic, will be supervising Javy Lopez in his attempt to move from catcher to first base.

"I have known Jose Oquendo from way back in the Mets days," Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo said. "He was a great infielder, and if he helped Pujols at first, then that's good enough for me to help Javy at first."

Oquendo, 42, is an up-and-coming managerial candidate known for his patience and attention to detail.

"He's smart. He's got a real good background, and he just has a very good eye for what the player is doing," said Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. "He doesn't tell everybody to adhere to one strict way that he teaches. He looks at the individual. And I am very, very impressed."

Now, his challenge will be steering the Puerto Rican team, which plays for the first time tomorrow in San Juan against Panama, while working one-on-one with his new first-base student.

Lopez, who has played only two innings at first in his 14-season major league career, lost his starting catcher job this offseason when the Orioles signed Ramon Hernandez to a four-year, $27.5 million contract.

Since he doesn't want to be a full-time designated hitter in his free-agent year, the 35-year-old Lopez's only alternative to remain in the starting lineup is to master a new position. He almost backed out of playing for Puerto Rico in the Classic until he spoke with Oquendo.

"I really trust his work, that he will help me out," Lopez said. "That's one of the main reasons why I feel comfortable going to the World Classic. I have a pretty serious role here that I need to focus on."

Oquendo said Lopez was most worried about how much time he'd get to work on first-base drills. Time, Oquendo assured him, wouldn't be a problem.

"We might have to stay 15 minutes longer or whatever. When the tournament starts we'll probably be there earlier than normal and work, just him and I," Oquendo said. "We'll make sure he gets his time."

Lopez will play both first base and DH in the classic, platooning with the Mets' Carlos Delgado. With other established catchers in the roster, Oquendo doesn't expect Lopez to be behind the plate at all.

Initially, Oquendo won't be trying anything fancy while working with Lopez. Just drills after basic drills. The toughest part, Oquendo said, will be improving the converted catcher's footwork around the bag. At the start, though, they'll work on getting him in proper position to catch balls.

"A lot of times people will teach not to worry too much about the ball, make sure you get the bag. I got to make sure they understand the ball is the most important; they are going to get to the bag," Oquendo said. "They are going to be in the position where they don't have to worry about getting to the bag."

Eventually, he'll mix in some of his tougher drills, like his favorite with Pujols. Oquendo stands at different infield positions and hits grounders with a fungo bat to simulate bad throws. Because he was a catcher, though, Oquendo isn't concerned about Lopez's ability to dig baseballs out of the dirt.

"He knows how to receive balls. His hands are already in a good position to receive balls," Oquendo said. "At first base, it is almost the same technique as receiving the ball from the pitcher. It's just coming a longer way."

Pujols thinks Lopez will have no trouble making the transition, especially if he listens to Oquendo.

"Javy just needs to know he has to work hard at it, because it is not easy out there," Pujols said. "He is going to have Jose Oquendo for three weeks, he is going to get plenty of work and plenty of ideas to what he needs to do through the season to get better."

More than anything, that's what Oquendo hopes he accomplishes. He knows he doesn't have much time with Lopez, but he wants to give him enough instruction that he can improve as the season progresses. Even though he is an Oriole and not a Cardinal, Oquendo is hoping he can make Lopez a solid first baseman for years to come.

"The thing about Jose is don't talk about hitting with him, just talk about defense," Pujols said. "He likes to spend time with everybody, he likes to work with everybody and help everybody out. I've even seen him help out the other side, the other teams, because he cares about [defense] and wants everybody to get better at it."

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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