Bridgeport, CT— Luis Lopez stepped onto the dew christened field Wednesday morning with a bright smile that easily competed with the radiating sun at The Ballpark at Harbor Yard. For the past three days, Lopez had tossed over 1,000 baseballs to kids ranging from the ages of 5-12 at this week’s Bridgeport Bluefish summer camp. Inside the batting cage, the veteran third baseman gave little pointers and tips on how to become a better hitter at the plate. It was nothing new for Lopez, as he has become accustomed to taking on a mentoring role throughout his 14 year professional baseball career.
Flashing their brand-new Bluefish baseball caps and t-shirts, the kids lined up patiently at the batting cage, jostling for position to be first in line. The anticipation to touch the coldness of the aluminum baseball bat ran wild among the young players. One by one they stepped inside the batting cage and were once again greeted with a cheek-to-cheek smile from Lopez.
Michael Lau played for the Giants at camp and during the home run derby in right field he blasted two home runs on five pitches. One of which sailed onto the train tracks behind the rightfield wall. The 7-year-old credits Lopez and the rest of the Bluefish players with helping him hit the ball better.
“I had a lot of fun,” said Lau. “It landed all the way on the train-tracks!”
“As long as they get one thing out of camp then we know that we have done our job,” said Lopez. “We just try to give them something from the great coaching that we have gotten during our careers.”
Lopez has coached in many baseball camps during his career and back home in Nebraska he’s done a lot of one-on-one lessons. He really enjoys the interaction with the kids and sees the importance in it.
“I want the kids to realize that we’re [the players] regular people just like them. We are just grownups,” said Lopez. “We are always put on a pedestal, especially when were playing in the big leagues. We’re sometimes viewed as untouchable and I want them to realize that I’m just a regular guy.”
Lopez has taught this message to many Major League players during his days in the Toronto Blue Jays organization. The Bronx native developed a good connection with the young Latin-born players in the system. Some of those players included Alex Rios, Felipe Lopez and Cesar Izturis.
“I tried to help them out as much as I could,” said Lopez. “I told them to be good citizens and to not get caught up in all of the temptations out there. I knew they were going to be big league players. I saw that the talent was there.”
In 1997, Lopez met current Bluefish teammate Luis Rodriguez when they played for Hagerstown (A, Blue Jays) of the South Atlantic League (SAL). If it were not for Rodriguez, Lopez may never have developed such good friendships with the Latin players as he did not know how to speak much Spanish.
“I remember for the first couple of months he didn’t speak Spanish,” said Rodriguez. “Coming from South America, I didn’t know much English so he would help teach me English and I would teach him Spanish.”
During the same year, Lopez broke onto the scene for the Blue Jays as he was named the Southern Atlantic League’s Most Valuable Player. The then first baseman/designated hitter led the league with 180 hits, a .358 batting average, a .430 on-base percentage and was named a SAL all-star.
It was a huge year for Lopez, being an undrafted free agent out of Coastal Carolina University. The 35-year old continued his steady ascent through the Blue Jays organization until finally reaching the top of the mountain on April 29, 2001, making his Major League debut.
“When I finally got called up to the big leagues all of my teammates started hugging me. It was a different kind of reception for a call-up,” said Lopez. “Everyone knew what I had been through. Me not being a draft pick and how I started off in the independent league. I didn’t sign with Toronto for money. I signed for a glove and two pairs of spikes. I just wanted a chance.”
“I was excited for him,” said Rodriguez. “This is our job. You want to see your friends go higher and higher. He called us, and was like ‘the stadium is awesome!”
Lopez played in a total of 41 games for Toronto that year and then made one last stint in the Major Leagues in 2004 as a member of the Montreal Expos, appearing in 11 games.
Tuesday night, Lopez showed off what he was teaching the kids in the batting cage by hitting the eventual game-winning RBI against the Camden Riversharks when he drilled a Josh Brey two-out pitch down the left field line in the bottom of the fifth inning to score Adam Greenberg.
As Lopez stepped on first base, he once again flashed that confident smile.