By Emily Van Buskirk
Raffy Lopez lingered near the ping-pong table in the middle of the Padres spring training clubhouse in Peoria, Arizona on Friday morning before camp. The 5-foot-9 catcher intently watched his teammates play, laughing when they showed off and cheering them on when they made a spectacular play.
After several minutes of spectating, he made his way to his locker and sat down heavily in his chair. Moments later a reporter approached him and asked the same questions Lopez has heard every day since he reported for spring training on February 14th.
“How are you going to set yourself apart?
What makes you a better catcher than the other guys?
How are you going to rise above the competition?”
But if the repetitive nature of the reporter’s questions bothered Lopez, it didn’t show. He has been around the bases – in the last four seasons Lopez played with four major league organizations plus a brief stint with an independent Atlantic League team. He recently signed a minor league deal with the Padres this winter, hoping to earn the backup catcher spot, but the arrival of veteran catcher A.J. Ellis to camp complicated things for Lopez.
But reporter’s questions or positional battle pressures don’t wear on Lopez, he just keeps calm and carries on, radiating a reassuring nature throughout the clubhouse as well as on the field.
“I don’t have the same amount of major league time as everyone else but I still do bring a lot of experience and I have been through a lot of things in my life that I can bring to the field,” explained Lopez. “And you know, I can hit a little bit and I can catch pretty well too. But mainly what I bring to the table is being the calming, soothing guy that just helps you get through the outing no matter how bad something is going or when something goes well I’ll be the one jumping for joy.”
But the perspective Lopez has gained over the years came with a price.
Two years ago, the night before Lopez’s wedding, his mother suffered a brain aneurysm. She slipped into a coma and eventually passed away as Lopez recited his vows. It was the worst thing that ever happened to him and it forever altered his outlook on life. He realized that each time he steps out on the field it’s not a dire situation, but a rather an opportunity to play the game he loves and play it well, not just for himself but also for his teammates. And for his mother.
“You definitely gotta be locked in and really just mentally focus on everyone, but you can’t really think about yourself too much,” said Lopez. “You just have to be ready to do anything for your team and specifically the pitcher.”
When it comes to the catcher position, a position that many argue is the most important on the field, confidence is key. And confidence manifests itself in different ways depending on the nature and personality of the player. For instance, Padres starting catcher Austin Hedges believes that if his teammates see a strong leader behind the plate, they will be more inclined to rally behind him.
“If they see a guy that they want to fight for, fight with, that has their back, that’s locked in on every pitch trying to lead that pitching staff, lead that team to bring some victories to San Diego, I think that’s most important thing for me,” said Hedges. “If I can have that presence behind the plate then I think that will lead to a lot of success.”
For a veteran catcher like A.J. Ellis, who recently signed a one-year minor league contract with the Padres, confidence comes from unselfish behavior.
“For young catchers, if you can focus more on your pitching staff than you do on yourself, the relationships between you are your pitchers is going to be much better, the teams going to win more games,” said Ellis. “What inevitably happens is when you focus on someone other than yourself, you actually play better in the long run.”
So where does that leave a quiet, even-keel guy like Lopez?
“The big thing with Raffy is that he’s the same guy everyday and that’s very rare in this game,” said Hedges of his fellow catcher. “It’s such a hot and cold sport, you have your ups and downs but everyday that I have known Raffy, he’s been the same Raffy. And I think that says a lot about the person that he is.”
Padres manager Andy Green agrees that besides unselfish, “even” is the best way to describe Lopez.
“Raffy doesn’t seem high or low to me but he’s lived life a little bit, he’s been through some stuff. When you go through things, you tend to realize that every pitch isn’t life and death even though its crazy impactful. If you treat it like life and death, you will get tight and he treats it like a game and that’s how it should be.”
Ellis agrees with the skipper and adds that Raffy’s heart is what draws others to him.
“Raffy has been so great to work with, he has such a heart for other people. It’s been shaped by a lot of his own personal life experiences. You can see, the way he kind of goes about his business in the clubhouse, the way other players gravitate towards him, the way he communicates with pitchers in the bullpen. Raffy’s entering the prime of his career and he’s going to have a great second-half of what’s already been a good start.”
But will that second half include any major league time with the Padres?
That remains to be seen. But as usual, Lopez is taking it all in stride.
“It’s hard to balance the relaxed yet competitive nature of spring training, it really is,” admitted Lopez. “I don’t have that opening day experience yet so of course that is what I would love to get. But I also understand the other side of stuff too. So you do get excited about that but you try and control your tone a little bit. You realize that you can hit 20 home runs and not make the team, you can catch terrible and make the team– at the end of the day it’s out of your hands. I just have to do what I do every day and take care of my business and what happens, happens.”
But if being grounded and living life well is the measure, he is already a success.