- Tony Jackson, ESPNLosAngeles.com
- 0 Shares
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Davey Lopes wasn't wearing ruby slippers or chanting "there's no place like home." But the result was pretty much the same. And when it finally happened, there was no one who was more surprised than he was.
"It's pretty special to put this uniform on again,'" said Lopes, the Los Angeles Dodgers' new first-base coach and a man whose name is ingrained in Dodgers history. "It's something I never envisioned doing. After 30 years, would you?"
He was part of the infield that stayed together for a record eight consecutive seasons. He was part of the pennants, four of them in those eight years, and he was part of that unforgettable World Series title. He was recognized as one of the game's best and most effective baserunners.
And then, just a few months after that championship, the party was over. Lopes was the first member of that infield to leave when the Dodgers traded him to the Oakland A's for a minor league infielder named Lance Hudson, who would never play above Double-A.
"I have always firmly believed that things happen for a reason," Lopes said. "It's coming home.
"I'm happy to be here. It is a good organization, and we want to help bring it back to where it needs to be."
Lopes didn't say exactly what he meant by "where it needs to be," but he really didn't have to. The thought has more to do with a collective approach, a personality, that once defined this franchise, including all those years when Lopes was its second baseman, leadoff hitter and sparkplug, the table setter for guys named Baker and Garvey and Cey and Smith, who knocked him in so many times over so many seasons.
Lopes can't revive that personality by himself, but he can certainly contribute to that cause, and the skill set Lopes brings is tailored to a part of the game the Dodgers pretty much stunk at last year.
Lopes' job is to manage the Dodgers' running game -- or, more to the point, to rehabilitate it. During a coaching career that began immediately after he last played in the majors in 1987, he has developed a reputation as one of baseball's top baserunning teachers.
"After he became available, I couldn't think of anybody better for what we wanted," said Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti, who headed the Chicago Cubs' media-relations office when Lopes was a Cubs infielder in the mid-1980s.
Lopes spent the past four seasons in the same role with the Philadelphia Phillies, who in all four of those years not only won the National League East but also led the majors in stolen-base percentage, including setting a record of 87.9 percent (138 of 157) in 2007. (The Dodgers were successful on only 64.8 percent of their stolen-base attempts last season.) But a salary dispute last fall resulted in Lopes' sudden free agency.
"Just having speed doesn't necessarily correlate to good baserunning," Lopes said. "Good baserunning is the ability to read the ball quickly off the bat and knowing what to do in a given situation, which is dictated by things like the speed of the baserunner, the score, the number of outs, the inning."
Lopes' baserunning tutorials this spring have included a little humor here and there, but there is no question he takes this stuff very seriously. He does as much demonstrating as he does talking. And while he covers the nuances and the technical aspects of taking a lead, rounding a corner and picking a spot, he delivers the information in a way that is easy to digest.
"If I had him as a coach when I was younger, I would have 500 stolen bases right now,'' said shortstop Rafael Furcal, the Dodgers' leadoff man, who has 293 of them in 11 seasons. "You look at some of these kids like Dee Gordon and [Trayvon] Robinson, they are basically learning all this stuff right now, while they're young, so when they get to the big leagues, they are going to be ready.
"They are going to know how to run the bases in a way that will help this team win games.''
For the most part, Lopes teaches the basics of baserunning -- the sort of thing that in Lopes' day, Dodgers players learned on the way to the big leagues, not after they got there.
"It's those little things that everybody can do, even the guys who don't have speed," Lopes said.
"Especially at second base, you have to get yourself in pretty good position to cut corners and cut down your area as you're rounding [third]. That can really help your third-base coach get two runs out of one hit.
"When you only get one run out of a hit [with runners on second and third], that is frustrating."
Lopes spends at least as much time on the proper way to run the bases as he does on the proper way to steal them. At the same time, he doesn't try to make every player Davey Lopes. Although Lopes has little use for the headfirst slide, he doesn't try to change players who are in the habit of it. And he recognizes that not every player possesses the same strengths he had as a baserunner.
"I think the thing that separated me from most people was I had the ability to recognize things as the pitch was breaking more quickly than most guys would," Lopes said. "They would still be in the box when I was already on my way toward second."
Lopes is hesitant to speculate on why the Dodgers weren't a better baserunning team last year, but one thing he can say with some certainty is that a 64.8 percent success rate on stolen-base attempts simply isn't acceptable.
"A lot of guys steal a lot of bases but also get thrown out a lot," Lopes said. "I don't like those guys, the guys who might steal 55 bases but get thrown out 20 times. I always thought as a player, it should be around 80 percent."
And that goes for everybody, from the speedster at the top of the order to the veteran in the middle who might create a run in a key situation by knowing a pitcher's tendencies and picking the right spot to move into scoring position with a well-timed swipe of second base.
"Anybody can steal bases at a given time and under the right circumstances," Lopes said.
There is no guarantee, of course, that Lopes can perform the same magic on the Dodgers that he did with the Phillies, who stole just 92 bases the year before he arrived. But his hiring alone signifies a desire by the Dodgers to change the overall approach and perception of the club.
In fact, manager Don Mattingly says, simply changing that perception can be worth something by itself.
"When you play a team that will put pressure on you, the first thing you're talking about in the meetings going into that series is that these guys will run, they'll take the extra base," Mattingly said. "So that before you even get on the field, you're thinking about that. That is how you put pressure on people, and it's something we talk about every day.
"Defense and running the bases, to me, are two areas where there is no reason you shouldn't be really good."
As the Dodgers' first regular-season game approaches, it is far too early to declare Lopes' program a success. But baserunning clearly has been a major point of emphasis this spring, and Lopes clearly has gotten the attention of his pupils. He brings a credibility that goes beyond the uniform itself and how he looks in it.
Still, there is something about the way he looks in it. The once-thick mustache has given way to a graying, closely cropped goatee, and the thick bushes of hair that used to stick out of each side of his Dodgers cap are now short and silver. He didn't even get his familiar No. 15, which Furcal has worn for the past five seasons, so Lopes had to settle for the No. 12 of his old Dodgers teammate Dusty Baker.
But even now, at an energetic 65 years old, Lopes in Dodgers blue is a sight that elicits nostalgic memories of better days in Dodgers lore.
Lopes' task now is to make sure it symbolizes the future as much as it does the past.
"He understands what we're trying to build here," Colletti said. "He knows it because has been a part of it."
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.