The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Wednesday, August 01, 2001

 

"He was going on his ass. We were going to drill him."

Milwaukee Brewers manager Davey Lopes earned himself a two-game suspension for those words, which were aimed at San Diego Padres outfielder Rickey Henderson. Henderson had just stolen second base in the seventh inning, with a 12-5 lead. An enraged Lopes came out of the dugout to tell Henderson he could expect retribution if he remained in the game. Padres manager Bruce Bochy removed Rickey before the Brewers pitchers had a chance to make good on their threat.

Lopes' line is definitely in the running for soundbite of the year, and it's the kind of old-school tough talk that makes for great copy. But when he accused Henderson of breaking one of baseball's unwritten rules--stealing a base while having a sizeable lead--he sounded more out of touch than old-school. These days, even a seven-run lead isn't safe; just ask the Houston Astros, who squandered a six-run lead in the ninth inning to the Pittsburgh Pirates the day before. Lopes' action was hypocritical--his own team has done the same thing earlier this year--and out of line (though it still wasn't as surprising as hearing Rickey Henderson talk about the incident in the first person).

But given the Brewers' woeful bats (poor Harvey Kuenn must be rolling in his grave), and their six-week tailspin (10-31), perhaps Lopes was just looking for a vacation. Seven runs is a huge obstacle for a team that doesn't get on base much (their .315 OBP is the worst in baseball), or have too many weapons--for that Lopes can thank the Selig regime, which seems set on proving that a small-market team can't competently build a winning franchise.

Lopes was the model player of my youth, so it pains me to see him become the object of ridicule now. He was an excellent leadoff hitter, a smart base-stealer (he once set a record with 38 consecutive steals, and late in his career would post seasons like 47 out of 51 in steals), even a Gold Glove winner. Captain of the Dodgers, he spoke on the players' behalf when coach Junior Gilliam died of a brain hemorrhage during the 1978 playoffs, then starred in a losing cause in the World Series, hitting three home runs. He was the first of the famous Dodger infield to lose his job, supplanted at 36 by Steve Sax and then traded to Oakland. Not surprisingly, he stuck around for several more seasons, playing the sage veteran for the division-winning Cubs ('84) and Astros ('86).

Through his career as a player and coach, Lopes always seemed gruff and no-nonsense, the kind of guy willing to tell you exactly how far to shove it if the occasion merited. That trait probably cost him a few managerial opportunities. It hasn't cost him this one, but if the Brewers' fortunes don't reverse, it won't matter anyway.

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