tampabay.com

Sharp and Sox-loving to the end

By KEITH NIEBUHR
Published October 31, 2005


TAMPA - Al Lopez was sitting comfortably at his kitchen table when I entered his house the morning after the Chicago White Sox claimed their first pennant in 46 years.

In fact, he was reading the sports section.

As I neared, the legendary Tampa figure and Baseball Hall of Famer gently sat his newspaper down, smiled, extended a firm hand and asked, "How are ya?" in a way that made it seem as though we had known each other for years. In reality, this was only our second meeting.

When I stopped by during the summer, Lopez greeted me at the door. But on Oct. 17 a caretaker, who was keeping an eye on things, let me in. It wasn't clear if Lopez's health had worsened. But he appeared tired. A long tube, which he said helped his breathing, ran from his nose down to the floor, through the living room and into a machine.

"I have a lot of aches and pains," he said. "But I'm doing okay."

Lopez's body might not have been what it once was, but his mind was as sharp as ever. I was amazed at the depth of his memory. In our previous meeting, he recalled catching for Walter Johnson, playing against Babe Ruth and giving hitting advice to Lou Gehrig. This time, he spoke fondly about the famed Go-Go Sox.

He recalled the final outs in Chicago's 1959 pennant-clinching win as if it happened yesterday. He remembered who was pitching. Who was hitting. What kind of pitch was thrown. Who fielded the ball. (An Internet check later confirmed his account).

Lopez still followed the Sox, he said, and was enjoying the moment. He talked at length about the squad's incredible pitching. That was what he loved most about the 2005 Sox, and it certainly made sense. He had, after all, broken into the major leagues as a catcher (that was in 1928, by the way).

The interview lasted no more than 20 minutes, and then the two of us just talked, which was something he seemed to like. He lived in the same house, which he bought with his late wife Connie, since 1959. He met Connie while he was in New York to play in the 1934 All-Star Game at the Polo Grounds. Boy, could she spend money, he joked, before pointing to a dock behind the house.

"She even bought a boat," he said. "That was a disaster."

Lopez loved talking about baseball. About his family. About his friends. He couldn't believe how much Tampa had grown, and how bad the traffic had gotten. He recalled growing up in Ybor City in what he described as the "horse and buggy" days. He spoke of the time he accidentally nicked a child named Marcelo Maseda while he was driving through town. Maseda, who later became mayor of Ybor City, is 86.

Lopez asked about my heritage, and genuinely seemed interested to hear I, too, had Spanish roots (his parents married in Spain, then lived for a time in Cuba before settling here in 1906). We talked about my elderly grandmother, and when I mentioned that she sometimes was a little bored with life, he said he understood. Those aches and pains he spoke of were becoming more difficult to handle. And the last thing he wanted, he said, was to become a burden to his family.

I stopped by the next morning, this time with a copy of the article I had written. I sat next him as he read it, and when he was finished, he complimented me. After talking awhile, I shook his hand and headed toward the door. On the way out, I asked if I could drop by again and he quickly replied, "You can come by any time."

I certainly planned to.