Lopez enjoyed happy homecoming
Big game in Puerto Rico highlight of catcher's stellar career
Javy Lopez left Puerto Rico to make his name in baseball. But it was a return to his native island that brought the catcher his most memorable game.
How could a homecoming be any sweeter?
With more than 60 family members and friends on hand at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Lopez enjoyed the biggest night of his Major League career.
Lopez homered twice, including a grand slam in the 10th inning, and drove in a career-best six runs as the Atlanta Braves beat the Montreal Expos,14-8, on April 17, 2003.
His two-run homer in the seventh inning was greeted with chants of "Ja-vy! Ja-vy! Ja-vy!" The cries were even louder in the 10th after the grand slam, with Lopez leaving the dugout for a prolonged curtain call.
"I couldn't ask for anything more," Lopez said at the time. "Very exciting. Very emotional. I knew I had some fans in Puerto Rico, but I have more than I expected."
Actually, Lopez had a lot of fans everywhere in 2003 -- his magical season.
In the final year of his contract with the Braves, Lopez batted .328 and smashed 43 home runs. One was as a pinch-hitter, but the 42 as a catcher broke the Major League record of 41, previously held by Todd Hundley.
"Javy had a great, great year," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "He was unbelievable."
Unfortunately, the good times didn't last.
Lopez, who still has his home in Alpharetta, Ga., left the Braves after the season, signing a three-year, $22.5 million deal with the Baltimore Orioles.
Injuries and disappointment followed. Lopez was shipped to the Boston Red Sox late last season and was soon released. He signed with the Colorado Rockies, but didn't make it out of Spring Training.
Lopez, who had signed with the Braves a day after his 17th birthday, insisted that he could still be a regular catcher. If he had to come off the bench, he said he only would do it with the Braves. Atlanta didn't offer him a job.
At 36, Lopez had reached the end of the line earlier than he would have liked. But it had been quite a career.
"The back of his baseball card speaks for itself," Rockies manager Clint Hurdle told reporters when Lopez got his chance at a comeback in Spring Training.
Of Lopez's 260 career homers, 243 came as a catcher. That puts him eighth on the all-time list, ahead of Hall of Famers such as Roy Campanella and Gabby Hartnett.
Lopez has a career average of .287 for 13 seasons and drove in 100 runs twice -- including 109 in just 129 games in 2003.
He was named to the All-Star Game on three different occasions. He twice played in the World Series, missing 1999 because of an injury, and winning it all in 1995.
But even the Braves' victory over the Cleveland Indians wasn't any more emotional for Lopez than his homecoming in 2003.
The Expos moved some home games to Puerto Rico for a few seasons and the Braves were a perfect early opponent.
Lopez went hitless in the first two games, disappointing those who had made the trip across the island from his home of Ponce. But Lopez had a single early in the series finale, then really thrilled the crowd of 13,170 on a rainy Caribbean night.
Lopez homered with two outs and a runner on in the seventh inning off Luis Ayala for his second home run of the young season. He then connected off Rocky Biddle with the bases loaded in the 10th, touching off near pandemonium.
"I'm happy for him and happy for the team," Cox said afterward. "He was trying so hard to do something in this series and I'm glad it happened."
A lot more good things happened for Lopez in 2003, as he bounced back from hitting just .233 the year before. Soon, however, the good times would be ending in Atlanta.
After Lopez hit .316 for the Orioles in 2004, it was all downhill. No longer could his offense make up for his defensive shortcomings.
"Javy knows this is a huge year for him as it relates to him bouncing back," Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd told reporters after signing Lopez to a non-guaranteed contract. "If it's the Javy of a few years ago, it's a good signing. If it's the Javy of last year, it may be a bad signing."
The Rockies made their decision not long after Cactus League play began.
Lopez told MLB.com at the time: "I don't think I'll go anywhere else as a backup. The way I feel, I can easily be an everyday catcher. If I'm not an everyday catcher, I'd rather not play this year, or retire."
Guy Curtright is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.