Baseball's J.Lo - Braves' Javy Lopez heats up after down year

Saturday, June 28, 2003

ATLANTA -- Javy Lopez got a chance to experience rock-bottom.

His body was bloated. His mind was a mess. His career had reached a critical crossroads.

"Last year," Lopez said, shaking his head and grimacing, "was horrible. It was not fun at all."

The two-time All-Star catcher knew it was time to take drastic measures. Step one was easy to figure out -- all he had to do was step on the scales. Lopez had ballooned to 248 pounds, more than 20 pounds above his purported playing weight.

So, he hired a trainer and stopped eating like someone who had just been rescued from a deserted island. He lifted weights nearly every day. When he wasn't pumping iron, he was running off the calories.

By the time Lopez reported to spring training for the Atlanta Braves, he was 210 pounds.

But the resurrection of his career wasn't complete.

Body and mindWith apologies to "Cool Hand Luke," Lopez had to get his mind right. That process wasn't simply a matter of eating less and working out more. An athlete's psyche is filled with all sorts of idiosyncrasies that must be sorted out.

"Just the mind-set, knowing you can hit instead of fighting yourself," said Terry Pendleton, the Braves' hitting coach. "Last year, he was fighting himself a lot. He was his own worst enemy. When he didn't get a hit, it was an end-of-the-world type of thing."

A slight change in Lopez's stance -- barely noticeable to the casual fan when made it in early May -- gave him the needed confidence boost. Instead of flailing helplessly at pitches, he started hitting them over the fence.

Paying dividendsGoing into the weekend, Lopez was among the major league leaders with 23 homers -- more than doubling the 11 he hit a year ago. His average had climbed from a dismal .233 in 2002 to a robust .316. He already had 46 RBIs, not far off the 52 he managed all of last season.

"There's no comparison in the way I feel this year compared to last year," Lopez said.

At 32, Lopez has managed to reverse the normal career path of a catcher, who often falls into a spiral of declining productivity as the years of wear and tear take their toll. Certainly, he has silenced those critics who believed his days were numbered.

"That's what keeps me motivated," he said "I have a chance to shut all those people's mouths by playing good baseball. Whoever thought my career was over, I have to tell them I'm sorry. I still have a long way to go."

With that, Lopez reveals a long, satisfying smile. Clearly, he is proud of this amazing transformation -- and willing to admit culpability for letting himself go.

"I'm doing more lifting during the season, usually three or four times a week," he said. Then, sounding a bit embarrassed, he added, "Last year, it was maybe once a month."

Free agency aheadA cynic might point out that Lopez is in the final year of his contract, willing to put in some overtime to protect his $7 million salary. There's been speculation that the Braves might trade their hard-hitting catcher before July 22, when he gains enough seniority to veto any trade.

In pursuit of a 12th straight division title, Atlanta seems more likely to keep Lopez for the rest of the season, then cut him loose. Johnny Estrada, currently playing at Triple-A Richmond, has been touted as the catcher of the future. Just as important for the budget-conscious Braves, he will command far less money.

"I've been hearing all sorts of rumors," said Lopez, who has played his entire career in the Braves' organization. "I don't even want to think about it. All I can say it I'm having a great season. "

Lopez made the All-Star game in both 1997 and '98, the latter coming during the best season of his career: .284 with 34 homers and 106 RBIs. The following year, he was hitting .317 when a torn knee ligament ended his season after just 65 games.

From there, a steady decline. For three seasons in a row, Lopez's numbers got progressively worse, culminating with that grim wake-up call in 2002.

"The difference this year and what he did last year, I have to say, is that he gets prepared every day," Pendleton said. "His work is more frequent. He came into spring training and worked harder this spring. He prepared himself."

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: