At 39, Davey Lopes Is Making Most of His Chance to Vindicate Himself
Fortune has paid back Davey Lopes.
At age 39, few players are given the chance to vindicate themselves. Lopes received his opportunity with the Chicago Cubs this year and seized it.
After struggling through a poor season in 1981 when Los Angeles won the World Series, Lopes, one of only five men in Dodgers history to hold the title of captain, was let go.
“It’s been a jinx,” Lopes said of the captaincy. “All the (Los Angeles) Dodgers captains wound up getting traded. Maury Wills, Willie Davis and me.”
Los Angeles sent Lopes to Oakland for an infielder named Lance Hudson and for more than two seasons he played infield, outfield and designated hitter for the A’s. Last year, on the deadline for playoff eligibility, the Cubs acquired Lopes as the player to be named later in a deal for Chuck Rainey.
Chicago General Manager Dallas Green had struck again.
Injuries have cost Cubs regulars more than 60 games and Lopes has stepped into the breach. By June 17, he led Chicago in hitting with a .317 average, had five home runs and 23 RBI, hit .458 with runners in scoring position, and committed only one error while playing five different positions. With Gary Matthews, Ryne Sandberg and Bob Dernier all sidelined simultaneously, Lopes helped keep the Cubs afloat until they were hit by a long losing streak beginning June 12.
“He’s been a godsend,” said Cubs manager Jim Frey. “He and (Keith) Moreland carried us for a month.”
Lopes has hinted his departure from Los Angeles was more than strictly a business move, but will admit to nothing more than the obvious. In 1981 he suffered a groin injury, hit .206 in 56 games and stole 20 bases, 39 below his average of the previous eight years. It appeared he was about to be overtaken by the aging process.
“I had an off year and they had Steve Sax,” Lopes said. “They (the Dodgers) would probably tell you I asked to be traded. But I’d never want to stay where I’m not wanted.”
Neither Lopes nor the Cubs expected the 13-year veteran to become a regular but, pressed into everyday use, he has responded with superior performances.
“First of all, he’s got a 25-year-old body,” Cubs coach Don Zimmer said. “He’s played more than the manager probably would have liked in order to keep him fresh, but he’s kept himself in great shape and it shows.”
Especially on the basepaths, where Lopes is as effective as ever. He stole 23 bases in his first 25 attempts this season. That’s well above his 83% career average, which places him high on the all-time list. On June 5 at Chicago, he stole his 500th career base, taking second off Pittsburgh pitcher Rick Reuschel and catcher Tony Pena. Then he stole third.
“He probably reads pitchers better than most,” Zimmer said. “He’s shrewd.”
And selective. In 1976 he was successful in 38 consecutive attempts, a ma if I ran to pile up stats. The bases I steal are the ones the team needs.”
Of the Dodgers infielders who had spent a record nine years as a unit, Lopes was the first to be traded. Ron Cey has been a big RBI producer for the Cubs in the past two seasons and Steve Garvey was a leader on the San Diego Padres National League championship team. Lopes, however, fell into obscurity with Oakland.
“They said Sax was the greatest thing since Jackie Robinson,” Lopes said. “They’re entitled.”
Although Dodger fans could not help but be impressed by Sax’ Rookie of the Year season in 1982, they never forgot what Lopes meant to the team and his recent tear is reviving the memories.
Still, he accepts that his playing time will dwindle as the regulars get healthy.
“Five years ago I might have complained,” he said. “Now I don’t make waves. When the man says ‘play,’ I play.”
In 1971, the year before Lopes broke into the majors, Walter Alston observed the muscular young man from Rhode Island in the Arizona Instructional League.
“I like the way that fellow handles himself,” said the Dodgers manager.
Coming from Alston, that was high praise. He would likely say the same today.