Ex-Phils coach Lopes is off & running in LA now

Davey Lopes is 'the best baserunning guy out there,' Dodgers manager Don Mattingly says.
Davey Lopes is 'the best baserunning guy out there,' Dodgers manager Don Mattingly says.
Posted: April 18, 2011

SAN FRANCISCO - When first-base coach Davey Lopes left the Phillies in November after a contract dispute, it was all business.

No hard feelings, he says, but that doesn't mean moving on was easy.

"No other place like it," said Lopes, who turns 66 on May 3. "I told them when I left I'm going to miss that intensity. It was so good it kind of gets you like you want to play, even though you know you can't still play anymore."

The baserunning guru has returned to his roots, joining rookie manager Don Mattingly to coach first base for the Los Angeles Dodgers, the team that drafted him in 1968, and where he became a fixture as the second baseman for 10 years.

His ties to the Phillies remain. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. called him the other day, offering condolences after a death in his family. Lopes said he has spoken with centerfielder Shane Victorino, catcher Carlos Ruiz and pitching coach Rich Dubee, among others, in recent weeks.

"It was a really close-knit group," Lopes said. "I miss them."

He still talks about his former team more like a fan than as an opponent. The Dodgers visit Citizens Bank Park June 6.

"I'm sure they miss Chase [Utley] a lot, but they've got a lot of guys who can hold it together until he gets healthy," said Lopes, whose spot with the Phillies was filled when Juan Samuel was hired as third-base coach and Sam Perlozzo moved from third to first. "They've got a great team, and right now they're at their peak, the whole organization is at its peak, to be honest with you.

"I know the Giants have a great staff, but if you have to pick the best pitching staff in all of baseball, it's Philly. They've got four potential Cy Young Award winners.

"Now, can they do better than they did last year? That's going to be the key. Only time will tell."

But don't expect Lopes to sit around for too long to see how that goes.

Forcing the issue has been a trademark quality throughout Lopes' career as a player, coach and manager. That hasn't changed even though he's now 65.

The Phillies were among baseball's most proficient baserunning teams during Lopes' 4-year stint in Philadelphia, leading all of baseball in stolen-base percentage each year, and setting a major league record in 2007 with an .879 percentage, 138-for-157. (They're 8-for-10 this season.)

The early returns suggest he has had a similar effect on his new team.

The Dodgers are stealing bases at a 79 percent rate (15-for-19), a nice bump from last season's 65 percent (92-for-142).

No coincidence, according to Mattingly, who believes Lopes has emerged as an inspirational clubhouse figure.

"He comes with a lot of credibility as far as being the best baserunning guy out there," Mattingly said. "The guys have been paying attention all spring, and kind of came into the season being aggressive, trying to take advantage of what other teams do."

Lopes, by all accounts, has been instrumental in helping resurrect five-tool centerfielder Matt Kemp's career. Kemp became known as a malcontent in the Los Angeles media during a career-worst year in which he feuded with a coaching staff that questioned his effort. He hit a career-worst .249 (40 points below his career average). After 16 games this season, he is batting .474 (27-for-57), with eight steals in 10 attempts. His two-run walkoff homer in the ninth inning against St. Louis yesterday snapped the Dodgers' five-game losing streak.

Kemp seems to relate better to Lopes and Mattingly than he did to future Hall of Fame manager Joe Torre and third-base coach Larry Bowa, the intense former Phillies shortstop and manager.

Lopes acknowledged that he'd "heard some things" about the circumstances surrounding Kemp's woeful 2010 season, but is focused on helping him tap into his potential.

"It's just trying to understand the player," Lopes said. "You try to get to know them as a person, not just as a player. You've got to know how to approach players of today, and how you present yourself to them. Players can be sensitive today, so you have to be very careful what you say and how it's interpreted. It may seem innocent to you, but to the other person it may be interpreted totally different."

Kemp credits Lopes with inspiring his play this year.

"I can talk to him about pretty much anything," Kemp said. "He loves talking about baserunning. We talk a lot about improving my baserunning and we talk about my mindset, about being humble."

Lopes comes back to Los Angeles amid a period of unprecedented organizational turmoil. The team's ownership situation remains uncertain with Frank and Jamie McCourt embroiled in a messy divorce.

Lopes is a link to a period in Dodgers history that was more innocent and exponentially more successful. Lopes, first baseman Steve Garvey, shortstop Bill Russell and third baseman Ron Cey, played together eight-plus seasons (a major league record) during the team's glory years in the late 1970s and early '80s that included four World Series appearances in 8 years and culminated in the 1981 championship.

The Dodgers haven't been to a World Series since winning it in 1988.

Lopes sees potential in a young nucleus that includes Kemp, outfielder Andre Ethier, and pitchers Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley, among others.

"Hopefully, we can get to that point again," Lopes said.

But he doesn't go around the clubhouse giving history lessons.

"Maybe just how I go about things, how I present myself," Lopes said. "I remember how things were compared to today. It was different, and that's to be expected sometimes, but there's a lot of tradition and a lot of history. I believe we're trying to recapture what we possessed when we were considered one of the best organizations in all of baseball."

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