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Keeping His Glove, And Bags, Close By Lopez Brings Optimism To Orioles' Plate
Keeping His Glove, And Bags, Close By
March 10, 2004
By now, Rey Sanchez has the routine down. Pack a couple of bags of clothes, say goodbye to his wife and daughter at their Puerto Rico home, head off for another season in the majors and rent - always rent - another place to live.
Sanchez, 36, has become something of baseball's hired glove.
Teams sign him for his spectacular defense, use him to stabilize a position, then let him go.
After spending his first 6 1/2 big-league seasons with one team, the Cubs, Sanchez has spent the past 6 1/2 with seven, and the Devil Rays will be his eighth. Three times during his 13 seasons, he has been traded to a contender late in the season. Only once has he had more than a one-year contract.
"I've made myself accustomed to it, to be ready to go somewhere else,'' Sanchez said. "I don't blame anybody for my career. It's always been that way. It's the way it happens.''
Sanchez can bring a lot to a team. His offense is better than he's known for, a .290 career average in the American League and a deft ability to handle the bat. His defense anywhere in the infield can be beyond compare, including a career .981 fielding percentage that ranks third of all shortstops who have played more than 500 games.
As Rays teammate Robert Fick said: "You hit it to him, you're out.''
But Sanchez can't seem to find a long-term home. The constant movement, disruption and inability to plan could wear a man down, but Sanchez has learned to consider it part of the job.
"It's a new team, it's another year,'' he said. "To me, all around baseball is the same thing. It's a family. We're all athletes, we're all players. We come here to do a job, to win, to get along. And if we have to move on, we move on to another family, to another group of guys and with pretty much the same mentality, to become better and do well.''
Sanchez has moved so often, the label of journeyman might be appropriate. He prefers a different description.
"A journeyman is more like a guy who is always up and down from the minor leagues,'' he said. "I'm more of a major-league adventurer. I'm more like an explorer.''
He has played in the bright lights of New York and Boston. He spent 2 1/2 years with Kansas City. He has been in San Francisco, Atlanta and Seattle, too.
Each move he thinks is the right one, the chance to establish himself and establish a residence.
He comes to the Rays with the same hopes, enjoying the mix of players, the situation of a young team on the rise and the proximity to his home in Puerto Rico and two other daughters who live in Sarasota.
"I rent an apartment all the time,'' he said. "I don't buy for that reason. I don't want to keep my hopes up. I enjoy it here. I'm having fun, everything's good right here. This is where I want to be. To me, it can't get any better.''
But as hopeful as Sanchez is, he is also realistic. He knows the Rays are deep in infielders and are looking to improve other areas. He knows manager Lou Piniella plans to play him at second and keep Julio Lugo at shortstop. He knows shortstop prospect B.J. Upton is coming soon and either he or Lugo could lose his job. He knows there is a chance a contending team will come looking for defensive help.
"Who knows what will happen here?'' Sanchez said. "I don't know what will happen toward the end of the season. I don't know what will happen toward the end of spring training. Who knows what will happen? I'm hoping it doesn't happen.''
If something does happen, he'll be ready. As usual, he's planning to sign a six-month lease on a furnished apartment. ("Pretty much, I know what the market will be,'' he said.) Becky and Sabrina will stay in Puerto Rico and make occasional weekend visits, then stay with him for the summer. As much as he hopes to stay, he knows he may be going.
He has learned something along the way, too.
"Pack light,'' Sanchez said. "Always pack light.''
Lopez Brings Optimism To Orioles' Plate
March 14, 2004
Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. --- Javy Lopez was a day over 17 when he signed with the Braves out of Ponce, Puerto Rico. Nearly 17 years later, at age 33, he's taking his first professional baseball steps without them.
One of a rash of longtime Braves now playing in strange-looking uniforms, Javy Lopez went out for batting practice before his first game of spring training in an orange Baltimore Orioles jersey with matching orange Nike swooshes on his spikes. He now wears No. 18 --- No. 8 belongs to the retired Cal Ripken Jr.
"It's hard," said Lopez, who went from locker to locker early in camp, introducing himself. "I felt like a rookie. It is weird. I guess I was spoiled with the Braves."
Lopez grew up as a Brave, and with them became a bona fide star. Last year fans voted him to start the All-Star game for the first time. He had followed the worst year of his career with the best, becoming the first catcher to hit 42 home runs in a season and only the third to hit 40 home runs, drive in 100 runs and bat over .300.
"I was hoping with the big bounce I did from 2002, that might change the Braves' mind, and they'd sign me for another long-term contract," said Lopez, who spent 10 full seasons and parts of two more in Atlanta. "It didn't work out that way."
He was in a hotel room when Braves general manager John Schuerholz called his cellphone, confirming what agent Chuck Berry had been foreshadowing all along.
"He called to tell me basically thanks for 10 years with the Braves," Lopez said. "He told me what their plan was, that they're going to cut payroll. I guess I knew about that. I've been hearing rumors the whole year. I was prepared for that. . . .
"I have no regrets, no anger at all for the Braves. They did what they had to do. I understand. I said thanks back. Thanks for the opportunity for all those years. It was a blast."
But when the conversation ended and reality began to set in, Lopez swallowed hard.
"It was a little disappointing," he recalled. "It's not the same thing when you hear rumors and when you hear the real thing. I (was thinking) 'I'm going to have to search for a team. I don't think I want to do it. What team can I go to where I can feel the same as I was with the Atlanta Braves?' It was kind of hard. There were none."
Like Tom Glavine, now a Met, Lopez was a lifer in the Braves organization. Coming up the farm system with Chipper Jones and Ryan Klesko, the trio probably generated more excitement than any class of Braves minor leaguers before or since.
Two years ago, Lopez said he listened to free-agent offers from other teams, but as soon as the Braves offered him a one-year deal with an option, he signed. After that expired, the only official word he got was good-bye.
He knew that was a distinct possibility after the Braves acquired Johnny Estrada from the Phillies. When asked about what it was like to play last season with Estrada in the wings, Lopez paused.
"It was hard," he said, finally. "It kind of gave me the motivation to play even harder. It's pressure, when you know that your job is (in jeopardy)."
He signed a three-year contract with the Orioles worth $22.5 million, the richest of his career. The Orioles also offered Pudge Rodriguez a three-year deal but he balked, and Lopez didn't hesitate.
Lopez makes his home now in San Diego and was originally looking for a West Coast team, but none offered close to what the Orioles did.
"They were the most interested in having me," Lopez said.
He hit so many homers (43, including one as a pinch hitter) that some question whether it was simply a workout program and Subway diet that helped him hit more than double his average of 18.8 homers per season.
Lopez denied taking steroids.
"Me? They can check me every day. I know I'm free of that. I don't mind at all. I came to spring training exactly the same (weight)."
Because he didn't catch Greg Maddux, Lopez fell seven plate appearances short last year of qualifying for second place in the majors in slugging percentage (.687) behind Barry Bonds. His .328 batting average would have been sixth in the National League. He won't have to worry about that now; new manager Lee Mazilli said he won't hesitate to use Lopez as a designated hitter.
Lopez joined Miguel Tejada and Rafael Palmeiro in a free-agent class that would have created a buzz if the Orioles didn't play in the same division with the Yankees and Red Sox. As it is, the Orioles are trying to snap a streak of six losing seasons.
"It reminds me of when I signed with the Braves," Lopez said. "We were in last place every year, then the team completely changed for the better." Photo Javy Lopez looks to improve Orioles.