If you were ever going to approach Davey Lopes with a question about something, be ready. Actually, there are a couple reasons for the heightened level of alertness, the first one has to do with Lopes himself.
See, Davey Lopes isn’t at the ballpark to hang out and shoot the breeze, so if he deems what you are asking him idle chatter or small talk, he wants nothing to do with it. He might even size you up to see if you are going to waste his time and then he’ll act accordingly.
But if what you have to offer is something Lopes thinks is an interesting topic, get ready because he’ll fill up your notebook and/or recorder. Lopes loves baseball and he enjoys talking about it in-depth just as much. That makes sense figuring that he has given his life to the game, first as a great player (mostly) for the Dodgers and then as a coach and a manager for the Milwaukee Brewers. Lopes’ passion for the game has an intensity that even the most ardent of the baseball lifers do not possess.
Mostly that gruff exterior is just for show and some of the players love to get the now-former Phillies’ first-base coach worked up over something. A great example of this would be to bring up the pivotal game in the 1977 NLCS known in these parts as “Black Friday.”
“Black Friday,” for those who were not around for the 1977 NLCS between the Dodgers and the Phillies, or for those historically challenged on baseball lore, remembers the game as the one where the Phillies missed their best chance to get to the World Series to date. If you thought watching the Phillies lose to the Giants in the 2010 NLCS was difficult, the ’77 NLCS would cause lesser souls to swear off baseball forever. Indeed, it was that difficult to see unfold.
The game in question was where Greg Luzinski famously misplayed a fly ball against the wall at the Vet during a stage in the game where he had been subbed out in favor of the better defender, Jerry Martin. It’s kind of like the Philadelphia version of Bill Buckner in that a move that is made in most circumstances was ignored for some inexplicable reason. For instance, manager Danny Ozark put Martin in for Luzinski the way Red Sox manager John McNamara replaced Buckner for Dave Stapleton. Only when he decided not to make the routine move for whatever reason is exactly the time everything will go wrong.
But that’s not all there was to “Black Friday.” It is also the game where shortstop Larry Bowa made that terrific play to make a throw to first in attempt to nail Lopes on a ball that caromed off third baseman Mike Schmidt. Only first-base ump Bruce Froemming called Lopes safe at first, which paved the way for more miscues as the Phillies blew a two-run lead with two outs in the ninth.
It also opened the door for Lopes and the Dodgers to knock the Phillies out of the playoffs and march on to the World Series and a date with the Yankees.
Nevertheless, when Bowa returned with the Dodgers for the 2008 NLCS—the team’s first meeting in the playoffs since the 1978 NLCS—both protagonists, then on different sides, were marched into the interview room for a formal chat. This is where the normally prickly Bowa played the part of the nice guy in reliving a memorable moment in Phillies’ history.
“They were good series,” Bowa said, clad in his Dodger uniform and that traditional “LA” cap, during the media conference. “We grew up playing them in the Coast League—they were in Spokane and we were in Eugene, Oregon. We had a rivalry going then. They seemed to get the best of us in those games.
“We always made a mistake late. It cost us, but they’re very competitive. You remember when Burt Hooton was pitching and the crowd got into it, he couldn’t throw a strike. Then the rain game with Tommy John. The play in left field where Bull (Greg Luzinski) was still in the game and Jerry Martin had been replacing him and he wasn’t in and it led to a run.
“Davey Lopes. I know Davey says, ‘Let it go.’ But he was out. He knows he was out and he can go look at that all day. A hundred thousand times he was out. But those were good games. They were good games and they seemed to bring out the best in us. I think Garry Maddox dropped a ball which he never dropped. It was just one of those things.”
Lopes, dressed in his Phillies home whites, followed Bowa and put an end to the Philly hand-wringing over the never-forgotten defeat.
“It was 31 years ago. Quit crying and move on,” Lopes said.
Certainly Lopes had a fantastic seat for a lot of great moments in baseball history. He was, of course, at second base the night Hank Aaron hit home run No.715 to break Babe Ruth’s all-time record and was the first person to reach out and shake the hand of the new home run king. Actually, it was a prideful moment for Lopes, who as a man with Cape Verdean descent, was often caught in between two worlds growing up in Providence, R.I. Lopes is not African-American, but is a person of color coming from a small island off the western coast of Africa. As such, he took even more pride in playing the same position for the same team that Jackie Robinson and Junior Gilliam once played.
Howard Bryant, in his new biography about Hank Aaron, recounts a conversation he had with Lopes about why he shook Aaron’s hand after the historic homer.
"I remember when I first came up. We’d be in spring training and Junior would tell me to come with him. I’d say, ‘Where we going?’ and he would just tell me to come on. We’d be in St. Petersburg and he’d point out the majestic hotels. He’d say, ‘That’s where the Dodgers used to stay,’ and I was in awe. Then we’d go farther into a neighborhood and he’d show me some average-looking house and say, ‘And that’s where we had to stay.’ And it blew my mind, because it wasn’t long ago. I thought about those things, about where we’d come as people of color, and that’s why I shook Henry Aaron’s hand. It felt like something I had to do.”
It was never as easy as just focusing on baseball, either. Lopes missed time at the beginning of the 2008 season after undergoing surgery for prostate cancer that was discovered during a preseason, routine physical. Then, in April, three days before the Phillies’ season opener in 2010, Lopes’ brother, Michael, died in a house fire in Rhode Island.
He says those events did not figure into his decision to turn down an offer from the Phillies, though. Baseball, after all, is Lopes' life. He just turns 66 in May and doesn't plan on giving up baseball just because the Phillies didn't make him a proper offer.
Lopes played in the World Series in 1974, 1977 and 1978 before finally winning it all in 1981. Later he got to the playoffs with the Cubs as a teammate with Bowa in 1984 and again with the Astros in 1986 where he was teammates with Larry Andersen and Charley Kerfeld. It was in the ’77 World Series where Lopes stood at second base when Reggie Jackson belted three homers in Game 6 to tie Babe Ruth’s record and clinch the Yankees’ victory.
In 1978, Lopes hit three homers, including two in the Game 1 victory, before the Dodgers fell again to the Yanks. Finally, Lopes and the famous Dodgers’ infield of Steve Garvey, Bill Russell and Ron Cey, beat the Yankees in 1981. Lopes contributed to the Dodgers’ World Series victory with four stolen bases against the Yanks, which was his forte.
Better yet, stealing bases and teaching others how to steal bases will be Lopes’ legacy. In 16 seasons in the majors, Lopes swiped 557 bases and led the league twice. In 1975 Lopes set the record with 38 straight successful stolen bases and led the league with 77 steals. In 1985 when Lopes was 40 he stole 47 bases and followed that up with 25 when he was 41. Not even Rickey Henderson stole as many bases as Lopes at that age. Then again, Lopes had a knack for doing things at an older age than most. He made his major league debut when he was 27 and after his 34th birthday he was as good as any second baseman ever to play aside from Joe Morgan, Eddie Collins or Napoleon Lajoie.
But it wasn’t so much about the amount of stolen bases Lopes racked up as it was his ability to steal bases and not get caught. When he swiped 77 bags in ’75 he was caught just 12 times and that number dipped to 10 times caught in ’76 when he got 63 stolen bases. When Lopes stole 47 when he was 40, he got caught just four times.
Lopes’ 83 percent success rate dwarfs that of Henderson (81 percent) and Lou Brock (75 percent). Ty Cobb’s stolen base rate is incomplete, but even from what information that is available, Lopes is better than him, too.
So with Lopes coaching at first base with a stop watch in his right hand and his eagle eyes watching every move, spasm and twinge by the pitcher, it’s no wonder that the Phillies led the league in stolen base percentage in four straight seasons. In fact, the 87.9 percent rate the team posted in 2007 is still a big-league record.
Want to get Davey talking? Ask him about statistics and stolen bases. Though the art of the stolen base is not popular in some sabermetric neighborhoods, Lopes says stealing bases is the best bet in baseball.
“The Red Sox are a team that uses the computer as well as any team, but Jacoby Ellsbury adds another dimension to them. You utilize that and it changes a philosophy,” Lopes said during a discussion about stealing bases in May of 2009. “Dave Roberts probably had as much to do with them winning the World Series [in 2004] and what did he do? He stole a base at the right opportunity. But when you think about the Red Sox you think about them banging the ball out of the ballpark.”
Besides, Lopes said, stealing a base is less of a risk than sending a hitter to the plate. Even the worst base stealers are a better bet than the best hitters, he says.
“If you do a statistical format, if you have a guy on first base in the eighth or ninth inning and he has a success rate of 68 percent, that’s still better than any hitter getting a hit,” Lopes said. “I don’t give a [bleep] who it is, he’s still not hitting .700. He has a better chance of stealing a base than the best hitter has to get a hit.”
When he came aboard after the 2006 season, Charlie Manuel pretty much turned the running game over to Lopes keeping only the power to put up a stop sign whenever he wanted. Nevertheless, Lopes’ base-running theories pretty much took over unabated and with such an important aspect of the game resting in his hands, Lopes used it to make things happen.
“The running game puts a lot of pressure on teams,” Lopes said last. “It causes teams to make mistakes, not only with stealing, but with the aggressiveness in which you play. If you run the bases aggressively, you can capitalize on a mistake if it’s made by an infielder or outfielder. If you don’t, you can’t. It’s an after effect—‘Oh, I should have ran.’ Too late.”
Too late appears to be the issue between Lopes and the Phillies, too. Lopes told CSNPhilly.com’s Jim Salisbury that he wanted to come back for a fifth season with the team, but negotiations fell apart. Lopes says he wasn’t asking for a lot of money, just more than the regular first-base coach who isn’t entrusted with so much responsibility to the team’s success.
Perhaps general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. and the Phils’ brass didn’t value those talents too much?
“We just had a difference of opinion on what I felt my worth was,” Lopes told Salisbury. “That’s all. It was a really tough decision because I loved my time in Philadelphia, I loved working for Charlie Manuel, and I have the utmost respect for everyone in that organization.
“I got more enjoyment out of winning that World Series in 2008 than I did the one I won with the Dodgers as a player. I can’t say enough about how much I enjoyed my time in Philadelphia. I am really going to miss the atmosphere and the passion. The fans were great to me. I went from being a bad guy, a Dodger, to someone they really embraced. I really appreciate that.”
Though the announcement came on Monday, a report surfaced out of Los Angeles that the Dodgers could attempt to woo back their old All-Star. Just think of the ways a guy like Lopes could transform the talents of a player like Matt Kemp. Just think what he did for players like Shane Victorino, Jimmy Rollins and Jayson Werth. Hell, big slugger Ryan Howard even swiped eight bases in 2009 and went from just one attempt to 15 attempts since Lopes’ arrival.
If Lopes can make a base stealer out of Ryan Howard, what can’t he do?
Now think about Lopes doing that for another team in the National League…