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He was 'pride of Tampa Latinos'

To many in West Tampa with similar roots, the gentlemanly Al Lopez represented much more than beisbol greatness.

By JUSTIN GEORGE
Published November 1, 2005


Al Lopez, who played and managed, is in baseball's Hall of Fame.

TAMPA - He was the champion of the Spaniards, Cubans and Italians who hand-rolled cigars in Ybor City factories.

For so many years, one name whispered beisbol in the dreams of Tampa boys.

Al Lopez.

Mr. Lopez, who died Sunday at the age of 97, was born to Spanish immigrants who came to Florida after living in Cuba. An Ybor City son, the Hall of Fame catcher and manager represented much to many.

"Al Lopez was a source of pride to a whole generation of Tampa Latinos," said Patrick Manteiga, the editor of La Gaceta and the board chairman of the Tampa Sports Authority. "He was someone we could be proud of, a Hall of Fame inductee who grew up on the streets of Ybor City and did good.

"This was someone who didn't have any advantage over others because of wealth. Whatever advantage he had was because of his skills."

He was larger than life to some. They preserved his storied career in tales passed along to their young, even after Mr. Lopez retired.

"No matter which nationality - Cuban, Spanish or Italian - it reached across all that," said state Rep. Bob "Coach" Henriquez, D-Tampa. "He was a hero to this community."

"I heard about him, but I never got to meet him personally," said Wallace Reyes, president of Gonzales Habano Cigar Co. in West Tampa. "But I heard about him from my grandfather and great uncle."

He feels a certain kinship. His own family had moved to Tampa from Puerto Rico. Al Lopez's father, Modesto Lopez, had worked in a cigar factory, too.

"Mr. Al Lopez is from this era, here," Reyes said, pointing to the wall in his strip mall store where rows of early cigar workers are pictured in a black and white photo. "He represented all you wanted to be - all you could be - in the Hispanic community."

People saw no rough edges, only a sterling character that fed the legend. He was nicknamed El Senor for his gentlemanly nature.

"Al Lopez was God almost in my house," said Mark Beiro, WFLA radio announcer and West Tampa native, whose father, Manuel Beiro Jr., was a huge Lopez fan. "For anyone who took Al Lopez's legacy seriously, you aspired to be like him. You always wanted to be his kind of man."

"These days, the players don't act right," added Armando Padron Jr., who runs the Fourth of July Cafe in West Tampa. "But Al Lopez was a gentleman and kids look up to him. I wish we had more Al Lopezes."

Padron, who came to Tampa from Cuba in 1979, added: "Even though his parents were from Spain, they lived in Cuba. We hold him as a Cuban. We lost a great one."

--Times staff writer Ernest Hooper contributed to this report. Justin George can be reached at 813 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com

[Last modified November 1, 2005, 05:02:03]


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