Mourning Tampa's first legend

Published October 31, 2005

Before the Devil Rays, before Gary Sheffield and Fred McGriff, before Wade Boggs and Steve Garvey, before Lou Piniella and Tony La Russa, there was Al Lopez.

For many years, the connection between Tampa and Major League Baseball was Lopez, the gentle man who had tremendous success as a catcher and manager, and an even better reputation as a kind and caring person.

Lopez, who died Sunday at age 97, was remembered by some of Tampa's baseball greats as the man who paved their path.

"He was Tampa's first true baseball star and hero," La Russa said Sunday night from his California home. "And I know we've never had a finer man represent our area. This man was so respected and so beloved in the baseball world. And he brought all that goodness back to Tampa.

"There have been a lot of great players from Tampa. But he was the first, and the best."

From when Lopez debuted as a 19-year-old with the Brooklyn Robins in 1928, until he ended his managing career as a 60-year-old with the White Sox in 1969, he was considered by many Tampa's lone link to the national pastime.

"He gave everybody hope that there would be some people who could follow in his footsteps," said Piniella, the former Rays manager. "Growing up, there was no baseball in Florida. There was only spring training. And, basically, there were few televisions. So you read the newspapers and listened to the radio.

"For a long time he was the only major-league visibility in Tampa."

Lopez was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977 and, until Boggs joined him in July, was Tampa's only resident in Cooperstown.

"His name is so big in this area," Yankees first baseman Tino Martinez said. "Kids nowadays see Al Lopez Park and they ask, "Who's Al Lopez?' They all know he's Tampa's first Hall of Famer. No matter what Wade Boggs did or Fred McGriff or anyone else, he'll always be the first."