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Lopez sure feels at home

More than 100 people Saturday braved a steady drizzle and mud-soaked park grounds to pay tribute to baseball Hall of Famer and Ybor City native Al Lopez.

On a day best suited for staying inside, Al Lopez Day was celebrated at Horizon Park, which was renamed for the former catcher. A life-size statue of Lopez chasing a foul tip was placed in the park at the corner of Himes Avenue and Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard.

"It's great," said Lopez, who spent 18 years as a major league catcher and another 18 managing the Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians. "It was a bad day, but it turned out to be a beautiful ceremony."

Mayor Sandy Freedman was among the dignitaries and friends crammed under a small tent. After a number of guests sang Lopez's praises, he and Tony Saladino Jr. unveiled the bronze statue, which was created by artist Steve Dickey.

"I really enjoyed it," said Dickey, who used present and old pictures of Lopez as a guide to creating the statue. "It was a good opportunity for a figurative artist to do something with a lot of movement. Al's just a great guy. He came out to talk about the statue. . . . It was a lot of fun."

A six-piece band was on hand to play Take Me Out to the Ball Game. A color guard, chorus and the Brandon High School cheerleading squad also were present. The fans and friends on hand were a blend of old and young.

Saladino, chairman of the Friends of Al Lopez committee, and other prominent community members such as WFLA radio personality Tedd Webb and Kash n' Karry CEO Ron Floto, began the fund-raising drive to build the statue in June 1991. More than $37,000 was raised solely through mailouts and word of mouth.

"It was the easiest fund-raising drive I've ever been associated with," said Floto, the group's fund-raising chairman.

The group's goal was to reinstate the sense of pride lost by the razing of Al Lopez Stadium, which stood across the street from the statue site from 1954 to 1989.

"I'm glad he was glad," Saladino said. "I'm happy that it was a special tribute. It was great to see the people's reaction when we unveiled the statue."

Lopez has long been a hero in Tampa's Latin community, a theme sounded often during Saturday's event.

"As a boy in West Tampa, his feats were constantly echoed in our home," said Mark Beiro. "I was always told about his days with the Tampa Smokers, his professional days as a player, his managerial genius and his pride in his Spanish heritage.

"Those things were always taught to me as a boy."

Lopez, 84, was the first Tampa native to play major league baseball, breaking in with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1928. He played until 1947 and set a record for most games caught (1,918) that stood until Bob Boone surpassed the mark in 1987.

He went on to become an American League manager with the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox, finishing second to the Yankees dynasty 10 times between 1951 and 1969. Lopez's teams won two AL pennants _ the Indians in 1954 and the White Sox in 1959 _ and he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977.

"It was one of those things that just happened," said a humble Lopez. "I never planned on being a major league player or a manager."

Jefferson High School baseball coach Pop Cuesta said he grew up listening to White Sox games on the radio because of Lopez. In recent years, such Cuesta players as Luis Gonzalez and Sam Militello have gone on to big-league careers, and Tampa natives Tony LaRussa (Oakland) and Lou Piniella (Cincinnati) are managing in the majors.

But it all started with Lopez.

"He was the first man to really put Tampa on the map as far as baseball is concerned," Cuesta said. "He set the example for others to follow. When Tony LaRussa first became a manager, he came to town to talk to Al. I'm sure Lou Piniella did the same thing."

"Gentleman" is the word used over and over again to describe Lopez, and this day was no different.

"It's like the mayor said, you've never heard a negative thing about him," said Al Lopez III, Lopez's grandson. "This just shows the love people have for him. The community has always looked up to him, and he's never done anything to disappoint them."

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