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Mudville: July 22, 2024 3:35 am PDT

Luis Lopez

"It’s more about giving back on the same streets where I was from to kids in the same situation as me.”

The sport of baseball has undergone many changes during this generation and unfortunately, those changes seem to be pushing out the very people who have been the lifeblood of the sport’s endurance: children.

For decades, kids developed a love of baseball through many avenues, but the most important one was playing the sport as youngsters. Baseball has persevered over 150 years, but in recent times, there have been troubling trends.

The cost of the sport on the youth level has turned playing baseball into a non-starter for families who cannot afford the exorbitant prices to play ball. Besides the fact that equipment has become costly, kids are being funneled into travel organizations at ages as young as tee ball. This provides a source of income for travel organizations and organizers of tournaments. That doesn’t even get into the price gouging you see from many organizations as they nickel and dime every family in the name of capitalism and at the expense of kids.

Then there is the flood of baseball instruction “gurus” selling a bill of goods to parents to line their pockets.

The shame of it all is that the first kids squeezed out of the sport are the ones who come from difficult socioeconomic backgrounds. It’s so much easier and more cost effective for them to go pick up a basketball or kick around a soccer ball.

The reason this is all coming to the forefront today at BallNine is because there are many fantastic people out there with great motives who see this obstacle and dedicating themselves towards providing opportunities for kids who may not have them.

One such person is former Expos and Blue Jays infielder Luis Lopez and he joins us for this week’s Spitballin’.

Thanks for joining us, Mr. Lopez! I think it’s awesome what you are doing with youth baseball and a very important endeavor for sure. Before we get into that, let’s take a look at your own career. What was baseball like for you growing up as a kid?

I grew up in the Bronx until I was about 13, then I went to high school at Canarsie High School in Brooklyn. I had a good career there and was the starting shortstop all four years. I was a Yankees fan growing up, so it was pretty cool to meet some of those guys when I made it to the majors. I was All-Boro and All-City and broke a lot of records there. I got a full scholarship to Coastal Carolina after that and had a great career there too. I was Honorable Mention All-American, set a lot of school records and was inducted into their Athletics Hall of Fame as well as the Big South Conference Hall of Fame. But even after all of that, I didn’t get drafted.

That’s an amazing collegiate career and pretty crazy you went undrafted. I saw that you got started with the St. Paul Saints. How did that come about?

Thank God for independent ball! I was finishing my degree at Coastal Carolina working towards my degree and had two classes in the Fall of 1994. I had promised my parents I would finish my degree. A new coach had come in to Coastal Carolina, Gary Gilmore, who is retiring after this year. He said he couldn’t believe I didn’t get drafted and asked me to keep working out with the team. He told me they would honor my scholarship so I could graduate. I was doing things like putting out towels and water for the basketball and volleyball teams. Gary Gilmore happened to see an article in Baseball America about trying out for the Northern League. I told him I had tried out for so many teams and nobody had ever given me a chance. I called and they knew exactly who I was. I went down there and played in the games. I led off every inning so they could see my at bats. Then then the time came, I was the first pick in the draft by the St. Paul Saints.

I told him that I was told I was slow, couldn’t hit with a wood bat, didn’t have a position; just a bunch of different excuses. He said, “That’s all horseshit. If you can hit like this, you’ll make it to the big leagues.

From the Saints you ended up in the Blue Jays organization. How did you make that jump?

My first year of pro ball, I hit .360 and didn’t win a batting title. I had a teammate hit .366. We were an independent team playing against affiliated teams. The Blue Jays saw that and invited me to extended spring training. I stayed at my uncle’s house about an hour away from Dunedin and was traveling back and forth just trying to get my chance. They gave me a uniform, but made it pretty obvious that I wasn’t signed yet. I had no name on the back and was wearing number 80. My very first game I had three hits against the Phillies. The next day I had two more hits and the farm director called me over and asked me why I didn’t get drafted. I told him that I was told I was slow, couldn’t hit with a wood bat, didn’t have a position; just a bunch of different excuses. He said, “That’s all horseshit. If you can hit like this, you’ll make it to the big leagues.”

They finally split everyone up. One group was going to Medicine Hat and I had already hit .360 there. I knew they weren’t sending me there. The other group was going to the New York-Penn League and my name was on that list. All my boys were congratulating me on making the team, but I had been through a lot of broken promises. I told them I hadn’t signed a contract yet and wasn’t on the team until that happened. They finally called me in to sign and I asked for $1,000 but they said they couldn’t do that. They sent me over to the clubhouse guy and gave me a first baseman’s glove, a third baseman’s glove and a pair of spikes. I grabbed that pen and signed for two gloves and a pair of spikes!

I was looking at your minor league stats and they were incredible. Five straight seasons over .300 with power and production and four of those seasons you hit over .320, including .358 in 1997! Can you talk about your minor league experience?

All along I knew I was going to play as hard as I can and I knew I was going to make it to the big leagues because I could hit. Every year, the Blue Jays hand out the R. Howard Webster Award. It’s the MVP for each team in each level in their minor league system. You get to fly to Toronto and stay there all weekend in the hotel at the Skydome and go to the games. They also give you $10,000. I won that award four times. I was blessed to make it to the big leagues, but I also found out that baseball is a business. My friends who were in the majors for 10 or 15 years tell me I should have had the same amount of time as them, but I had signed for nothing. The opportunities went to guys that organizations had money invested in. I had one manager who really pushed for me and that was Buck Martinez. I thank him to this day. I still go to the games when Toronto played the Yankees and always go to the family lounge to see him to give him a big hug.

Infielder Luis Lopez #12 of the Toronto Blue Jays makes a throw to first base during a game against the New York Yankees at the Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York. (Photo Credit: Ezra O. Shaw /Allsport)

That’s incredible. And you’re the only guy in Blue Jays history to win the R. Howard Webster Award four times! What was that like when you finally got the call to the big leagues?

That whole year everyone was finally being honest with me. I came across a lot of people who liked to blow smoke and I never knew why. But that was the first year that they told me they were sending me down because they were keeping Ryan Freel, may he rest in peace. He could play shortstop and the end guys on the roster have to play multiple positions. I played multiple positions, but not shortstop. They told me to go down and do well and I’d get my chance. I was like, “OK, I’ve heard this one before.” Buck and Dave Stewart really fought for me to get the big leagues. That April I was hitting .370 with five home runs and about 30 RBIs. They called me in the office and I was wondering what I did wrong.

The manager was Omar Malave, may he rest in peace as well. He was always a jokester. He asked me how my walkup song went. It was a song by Big Pun and one of the lines was, “When is the day my luck is gonna change?” He said, “Well your luck is going to change. You’re going to Toronto tomorrow.” Do you know that I cursed that man out! I thought he was messing with me. I walked out and was really pissed off.

How long before you realized he wasn’t joking?

He was laughing, but I was dead serious. Our hitting coach was Kenny Landreaux and he was like, “Lopey! What’s up?” I said, “You know how O is always joking with me? He called me in and told me I was going up to Toronto.” He said, “Lopey, he’s for real.” I still wasn’t convinced and told him that I knew he was a serious guy and not to be like Omar. Kenny said, “Lopey, I am not lying. You’re going up to Toronto. You leave tomorrow.” I hugged that man and cried like a baby. All my teammates came out and mobbed me and were jumping up and down. After everything settled down, the reporters who had all worked there 20 years told me they never saw a reaction like that for anyone who was called up.

Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Luis Lopez reacts to a strike against the New York Yankees on July 29, 2001 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo credit: J.P. MOCZULSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Could you tell us about your first major league at bat?

I came in to pinch hit for Darrin Fletcher and they brought in a lefty, Mike Holtz, who I had faced in college when he was pitching for Clemson. Cito Gaston was my hitting coach and he gave me a scouting report. I told him I faced him in college and he said, “OK, go get ‘em kid!” They announced my name and as I was walking up to the plate, my buddy Bengie Molina was walking back from the mound. He was congratulating me in Spanish and then said, just relax, you’re not going to hit today. I just looked at him and he goes, “We’re putting you on.” Back then you had to throw the pitches, so the first pitch of the intentional walk came in and in my mind I’m thinking, “Oh God, I’m going to be the answer to a trivia question!” The next guy it happened to was Hunter Renfroe and that was 15 years later in 2016. Sure enough, they said on MLB Network that the last time that happened was in 2001, Luis Lopez with the Blue Jays.

As someone from the Bronx and Brooklyn, what was it like going to Yankee Stadium for the first time as a player?

Yankees fans are very knowledgeable. I parked my car at the stadium and was walking in from the players’ lot. The fans were yelling, “Hey Luis, welcome back!” When I got into the clubhouse, it really hit me that I was playing in Yankee Stadium. I had played there before for the City Championship and an All-Star Game in 1990. Now 11 years later, I was back there as a big leaguer. I got out there early because I wanted to soak it up. I wanted to see the monuments and stand in centerfield looking at the stadium. I watched Yankees batting practice. I played winter ball with Jorge Posada so I was watching him bat. I was watching Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams and all those guys thinking I just watched these guys playing in the playoffs last year and they were on the verge of going back.

What was it like to step in the batter’s box for the first time there?

We were facing Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina and Roger Clemens that series. Against Clemens, I figured he’d come right at me with fastballs. The guys told me not to get comfortable because he likes to make rookies wear one. I just figured it was part of the game, so whatever. My first at bat I fouled a couple pitches off and then he put a fastball on the outside corner for strike three. I looked at the umpire and said, “OK, I understand. He’s a Hall of Famer and I’m a rookie.” Next at bat, he throws me a fastball and I hit a rocket to left field for a hit. Now here comes the intimidation factor. He was staring at me and I looked at him and shoulder shrugged. We’re both men, he got me and I got him. I got two hits off him. I also made a play on Derek Jeter. He hit one down the line and I dove, made the play and threw him out. That’s when I felt like I was in New York. All the f-bombs came out from the stands. I was in New York for the whole week because we played the Mets too. I didn’t even stay in the team hotel, I got to stay with my family and that was great.

What an awesome experience! I wanted to ask about your time with the Expos in 2004 too. That was their last season as a franchise. What was that season like with the Expos?

It was really cool because I made the team out of spring training. Frank Robinson was my manager and there were a lot of veterans on the team. Guys like Jose Vidro, Livan Hernandez, Carl Everett, Tony Bautista. They were telling me that Frank Robinson liked me and I was gonna make the team. They told me that he doesn’t like rookies and doesn’t talk to them. I told them that he was talking to me. They were like, “There you go. There’s your sign.” It was really cool playing for a Hall of Famer. And I got to play on my home field for winter ball in Puerto Rico that year too.

That’s right! The Expos played games in Puerto Rico that year too. What was that like for you?

We played 22 games there and the fans knew me. Whenever I came up, my teammates would be like, “Damn Lope! They love you here!” In 2001 with the Blue Jays we opened against the Rangers with ARod and Pudge Rodriguez. The day before there was an exhibition game and I played in it. The guys were messing with Carlos Delgado saying that he wasn’t nobody and it was me getting all the cheers here. I said, “Man, trust me. They love Los here. He’s the man on the island, but this was where I played winter ball.” Carlos said that after his two at bats I could go in for him at first base so I could play in front of the fans. He got two at bats in the first three innings, so I got to play six innings. My first at bat I came up and Pudge was catching, ARod was at short and their whole team was out there. First pitch was a fastball and I hit a bomb. Home run. I was running the bases and had gotten near second and was looking at ARod. I had met him a long time ago through family friends and gave him a wink. He had a look that he thought he recognized me. I touched home plate and that place was going crazy. The veterans who were already out of the game came out of the clubhouse and almost tackled me.

July 8 ,2001: Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Luis Lopez tags out Montreal Expos outfielder Vladimir Gurrero at third base in the 5th inning. The Blue Jays beat the Expos 9-3. (Photo by Jim Ross/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

I wanted to ask too about what you’ve been doing in your community now with youth baseball and the Nighthawks Baseball Program. The floor is yours to talk about that now.

I want to provide kids an opportunity who are being left out of baseball because of how expensive the sport has become. That turns out to be a lot of kids of color in the inner city. The game is too pricey. I look back and don’t think that my parents could have afforded to let me play baseball if it was like today and look what I became. I played for 20 years and became a big leaguer. I just want to provide opportunities to kids who have unfortunate situations. But they also have to meet criteria. Their grades need to be good and they need to take care of their business. I want to teach them discipline and manners. Right down to saying things like, “Thank you, you’re welcome, hello, goodbye, please, yes.” All those little words that make a difference. It’s not just baseball; it’s a life-long lesson in the game we love.

I also wanted to do this on the high school level because there’s a lot of garbage being taught to these kids. They don’t have fundamentals. I want to give them the knowledge of things I learned playing 20 years of pro ball. I feel like when I was young, we were taught to be very fundamentally sound, so I want to bring that back. Kids don’t know how to bunt or line up for a cutoff. Right now, everyone is caught up in results and metrics instead of doing what’s right. I understand the analytics are there and it’s good to use them. I don’t think things should be all old school or all new stuff. You need a combination to help these kids learn the game that we all love.

That’s really well put and I can tell those kids are in awesome hands. It’s great and I’m honored to help get your message out there.

It’s important. I have had a lot of people tell me I should write a coaches handbook and have it published. That’s what I’m working on now. It’s like a Baseball 101 thing. It talks about philosophies of hitting and things like that. I break it up into the three parts of baseball—offense, defense and base running. Nobody teaches base running anymore. They’re caught up in velo, telling me they throw 97. I’m like, “That’s great, but can you throw strike one? I want strike one.” Sometimes you need to pitch to contact so we can get a double play. They don’t think of that. People are so caught up in velo that they can’t throw strikes. Then I have to take them out because they have 70 pitches in three innings.

But like I said, it’s more about giving back on the same streets where I was from to kids in the same situation as me. I grew up in a divorced household. We have a lot of players who are from single parent homes like me. We got a lot of kids who parents are cops. My dad was a cop too. There are different scenarios and my goal is to put together an organization that is as diverse as New York City itself.

Rocco is a baseball writer with too much time on his hands who lives in the dusty corners of Baseball Reference. He was one half of the battery for the 1986 Belleville Recreation Farm League Champion Indians. He likes early 20th century baseball nicknames, pullover polyester jerseys and Old Hoss Radbourn. He works as a College Athletics Director and his second book was released in April of 2021.

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