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Yankees legend Hector Lopez is baseball magic for this big kid

Published Oct. 6, 2012

The 10-year-old boy spread his baseball cards on the floor in the shape of a diamond, ready for the game of the week on the black and white TV. He had all the New York Yankees, his favorite team. He could tell you their statistics, from home runs to home towns. He wore his Little League uniform, blue pinstripes and stirrup socks — just like the Yanks.

First the infield: Moose Skowron, Bobby Richardson, Tony Kubek, Clete Boyer, Yogi Berra or Elston Howard behind the plate. Then the outfield: Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle, Hector Lopez.

In this small Texas town, a boy in 1960 could only dream about someday attending a Major League game, much less meeting one of his heroes. For this boy, nothing was more important than baseball. He slept with his glove. He tossed balls in the air and imagined making the game-winning catch. He loved Mantle. He wrote his dad, a soldier overseas, and predicted who would win the 1960 World Series — the Yanks, of course, in seven games over the Pittsburgh Pirates. He told his dad he might want to be a sportswriter. If he couldn't grow up to play baseball, maybe he could write about it.

• • •

The baseball cards disappeared long ago, a fortune lost. And for the boy now old enough to draw Social Security, the sport no longer held the same magic.

Then last week, I found it again in a spare bedroom-turned-study in Hudson.

A Yankees fan would call it a shrine. It felt much like a museum, framed autographed pictures of the World Series champs from 1961 and 1962, among other treasures; personal notes of affection from Maris and Mantle, a framed pinstriped jersey, No. 11.

Hector Lopez, 83, reached out to welcome me and I thought, "This hand shook Mickey's hand.'' It seemed strange, in a way, that after all these years, No. 7 — the Mick — still lurked just below the surface.

"He was my friend,'' Lopez said, "and nobody played harder or wanted to win more.''

Who would know better than the man who shared the outfield with Mantle and Maris on a team that played in five consecutive World Series? In 1960, when the Pirates' Bill Mazeroski hit a walk-off homer in the ninth inning to spoil my prediction, "Mickey cried,'' Lopez said. "A lot of us did."

Lopez built quite a resume himself. He played 1,450 games in 12 Major League seasons, often finishing in the Top 10 among American League hitters. He was the second player in the majors from Panama, the first with a sustained career. He remains a revered legend in his home country. After retiring as a player, he was the first black manager at the AAA level with the Buffalo (N.Y.) Bisons.

He has wonderful stories as a witness to perhaps the greatest and most pressure-packed baseball story ever: Roger Maris' chase of Babe Ruth's home run record in 1961. Maris finished with 61, one more than the Babe. Mantle, who missed a few weeks with an injury, hit 54.

"Everybody wanted Mickey to break the record,'' Lopez said. "The fans were pretty hard on Roger.''

In the deciding game of the World Series that year against Cincinnati, Lopez tripled and homered, driving in five runs.

When Lopez arrived in New York after a stint with Kansas City, Casey Stengel was the manager. "He never talked to me,'' Lopez said, "except to say, 'Hey, you, get a bat.' He was a funny guy.''

Lopez, unlike some teammates, stayed away from the notorious New York nightlife, mainly because his mother moved to Brooklyn about the time he joined the Yankees. "She expected to see me,'' he said. "I didn't disappoint her.'' Also, he got married. He and Claudette, also from Panama, will celebrate their 52nd anniversary Nov. 30.

The most money Lopez ever made playing baseball was $35,000, not bad for the time. That equates to $272,407 today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator. Today's major leaguers make an average of $3 million, with a minimum salary of $480,000. Lopez doesn't begrudge any of that, even though when he played the league had half as many teams and only the cream rose to the top. He'd be wealthy today, although riches come in many forms. This is a man whose friends included Roberto Clemente and Hank Aaron. This is a man who took the field with Ted Williams and chatted with Willie Mays. Memories are priceless.

When Lopez retired, he had to go to work. He managed and scouted some, but mainly he settled into a 20-year career with the Department of Recreation in Hempstead, N.Y.

After he retired, he and Claudette came to Florida for a benefit old-timers baseball game. She liked the area and they decided to build their house in Hudson on the Links golf course, which Hector plays a few times each week. He shoots his age.

He hasn't missed a Yankees Old-Timers' Day since 1966. "Now,'' he says, "I don't play. We older guys leave that to the young old-timers. I don't want to hurt myself.''

He's sad that so many of his contemporaries have passed away — this year Moose Skowron. "But you can't stop time.''

His neighbors and golf buddies all know about his past. Sometimes they'll bring a friend by the house for an autograph.

He enjoys and roots for the Tampa Bay Rays — unless they're playing the Yankees. He sees plenty of his old team during spring training in Tampa and when they play the Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. He especially admires Derek Jeter, who would have been a star in any generation.

Today, he'll be glued to his TV as the Yanks, champs of the American League East, open their quest for another championship. That much never seems to change.

And though the business of baseball has evolved, 10-year-old boys still sleep with their gloves. Some kid in Tampa dreams about Evan Longoria.

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