VIERA, Fla. - Davey Lopes has been doing this - either as a player, a coach or a manager - for more than four decades now. Baserunning is his livelihood, and few have ever done - or taught - it better.
So when the 70-year-old first base coach (reunited with the Nationals a decade after he held that same position on Frank Robinson’s staff) stood on Field 2 outside Space Coast Stadium this morning offering a 45-minute clinic on the craft of baserunning, every position player on the roster was captivated.
Lopes literally covered all the bases. He showed everyone how to properly get out of the batter’s box after making contact. He offered tips on rounding first. He explained how to lead off second. And he went through the mechanics of tagging up from third.
“You try to get them to realize that nothing’s too small,” he said. “You can’t take anything for granted. Especially this team, it’s expected to go a long way. You don’t want something insignificant, or considered to be real small in the game, to cause you to lose getting to the playoffs or even getting to the World Series. This is a part of the game they can all control.”
And it’s a part of the game Lopes and new manager Dusty Baker want the Nationals to control as well as anybody.
When Baker was putting together his new staff after getting hired in November, Lopes was among the first additions. The two were teammates with the Dodgers in the 1970s, but they’d never been on the same coaching staff, despite each remaining in the game nearly the entire time.
Lopes, who stole 557 bases at an 83 percent success rate that ranks 23rd all-time, always has had a gift for teaching what he knows about the skill.
“Total package,” said Jayson Werth, who played for Lopes in Philadelphia and calls him the best baserunning coach in history. “If you look at his stats on baserunning alone, he was a great baserunner. You can ask (Baker) about that, he knows. But the thing for me, looking at his numbers for his playing career, he stole 40-some bases when he was 40. It wasn’t because he was fast, it was just his knowledge. That’s him knowing things. That same stuff he knew later in his career that helped him steal all those bases is the same knowledge he’s using as a coach to instill in his baserunners to give them the knowledge and also the confidence to steal that base.”
Plenty of ballplayers have the natural speed to run the bases well. But Lopes knows there’s so much more to becoming a great baserunner.
“Knowing the game situation,” he said. “You have to know what’s happening on the field, so you can anticipate certain things happening. Be ready when the opposition makes a mistake. It’s just like hitting. Pitcher makes a mistake, you’ve got to be ready to pounce on it. It’s the same thing with baserunning.”
Lopes spent his 45 minutes this morning going over all those situations, showing players every little trick of the trade that can make the difference between a game-winning run or a game-ending out.
“Davey is the best,” Baker said. “He sees things that other people don’t see. There are different keys. He makes you aware and conscious of how to do it right. And if you don’t do it right, he’ll let you know you didn’t do it right. He’s one of the best baserunners I ever played with. No, he is the best.”
He also has a knack for connecting with ballplayers who are young enough to be his grandkids.
“I just like Davey’s presence and his attitude,” said Ryan Zimmerman, who stole a career-high 11 bases when Lopes last coached for the Nationals in 2006. “He jokes around and gets to know every player. The second you do something, he’s not afraid to tell anyone: ‘You know, you could do this better.’ He’s got that fire in him. I think every coaching staff needs someone like that. He’s not afraid to do it to anyone, which is good. I just remember really enjoying playing with him when I was younger and he was here. He taught me a lot then. Now to have him here, it’s very valuable for us.”
How valuable? Well, Lopes hopes the small details he instills in his players can be among the things that gets the Nationals over the late-season hump that has eluded them the last four years.
“Today’s game is predicated on pitching and hitting. And I understand that,” he said. “Baserunning is considered to be insignificant. But it’s only insignificant until you make a mistake that costs you a game. Hopefully, we can change the mentality about that phase of the game.”