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Dodgers chose Jackie, McRae chose Dodgers

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published June 9, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Dodgers used to be Hal McRae's team.

Growing up in Avon Park in the 1950s, McRae, his family, his friends, most everyone he knew, were Dodgers fans.

It wasn't their style of play or their uniforms or their spring home in Vero Beach that were the attractions.

This was a much deeper relationship.

The Dodgers had Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play in the major leagues.

And in a small south central Florida community, where segregation still was the norm, that was a significant bond.

"We were all Dodgers fans," McRae said. "Everybody in Avon Park was a Dodgers fan. When the Dodgers were in the World Series, at my grade school when the game was on school was out. They felt we needed some heroes, and he was the guy."

Robinson was a topic for the text books and the dinner table. McRae remembers sitting around the radio at night listening to broadcasts that faded in and out to hear what Robinson, and other black players, were doing.

It was an especially big night when two black pitchers, such as Brooks Lawrence and Joe Black, were going against each other, matchups that seemed to happen with curious regularity.

"I think the Dodgers were the team for a lot of blacks because the first black player played for them, and the Dodgers became a good club when they had a lot of blacks," McRae said, ticking off names such as Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Sandy Amoros, Junior Gilliam and Charlie Neal.

As a result, McRae said the Dodgers, who Monday open a three-game series at Tropicana Field, drew something of a nationwide following of black fans.

"It used to be, though it's not anymore, but black people that did come to a baseball game came when the Dodgers came," McRae said. "I remember when I first went to Cincinnati you had bigger crowds when the Dodgers came. I think they've lost that mystique now. It seems like it's almost forgotten now, the history of the Dodgers as far as the black players."

REMEMBER ROMELIO: The Rays could have quite a catch if they can sign pitcher Romelio Lopez, their 18th-round pick.

Lopez, 18, was a hot prospect in his native Venezuela a few years ago, good enough that the Astros invited him to their training academy at age 14. But he ended up in the middle of controversy when his parents, according to the Houston Chronicle, claimed the Astros were hiding him from other organizations to sign him as soon as he was eligible at 16.

Romelio Lopez Sr. said he was besieged by scouts wanting to see his son pitch and scheduled a tryout. The Astros then severed ties with Lopez, whose fastball had improved from 82-92 mph, and suggested an agent was steering the parents to seek more money than they would get, the Chronicle reported.

Over the next two years, Lopez went through several tryouts, and several agents, reportedly turning down $800,000 to sign at one point. He moved to Conroe, Texas, near Houston, last summer, gained eligibility to pitch this spring when his father established residency, and in limited opportunity dazzled with a fastball that hit 96 mph and tremendous power at the plate.

"I don't know how much he got scouted," Rays scouting director Dan Jennings said. "We've seen him a couple times. We like him as a hitter and as a pitcher. He's 6-5, 235 with a good fastball and good power."

NOT-SO-MINOR MATTERS: The Rays lost talented infielder Ramon Soler to the Mets because they ran out of room on their 40-man roster. They needed a spot to reinstate Bobby Seay from the 60-day disabled list and lost the gamble of trying to get Soler -- whose stock dropped when he was found to be 24 rather than 20 -- through waivers. ... Pitcher Enger Veras, detained in the Dominican Republic since spring training because of visa documentation issues, finally showed up last week -- with a different first name (Jose) and birthday (he's about a year older). ... Minor-league pitcher Bartolome Fortunato was found to be 27 rather than 21.

HOO-RAYS: Signing 13th-rounder Matt Harrington will be complicated. He reportedly just filed a lawsuit against former agent Tommy Tanzer for advising him to turn down a $4-million offer from the Rockies. And he is represented by Scott Boras. ... Commissioner Bud Selig insisted to "there will be contraction" before next season and "there are plenty of candidates."

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