Seattle second baseman was at his sister's funeral in Venezuela when he said he would hit at least 20 home runs this season.
It was the final promise Jose Lopez made to the eldest sister who’d helped raise him in her home.
His sister, Enzy, had taken Lopez in to live with her when he was 10, easing pressure for his mother, who was raising some of his half-dozen other siblings in the Venezuelan town of Anzoategui. Though they all lived close together and Lopez saw his mother and family every day, it was Enzy who would talk to him at night about his dreams for the future.
Enzy was the one who helped him with his schoolwork. Who counseled him about the girls he wanted to date. And who walked Lopez through figuring out whether he wanted to be a soccer player or baseball player.
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“She told me, whatever you do, just be happy,” the Mariners second baseman said.
That he did, choosing a baseball career he loves and that has provided millions of dollars toward a better life. And so, the final time he saw Enzy back in June, standing at her funeral after the 36-year-old mother of four had been struck down by cancer, Lopez thanked her for all she’d done and made a promise.
“I promised her 20 homers,” he said. “I told her, ‘I’m going to get 20 for you.’ “
It was no easy promise for a player who’d never hit more than 17 home runs and was off to the worst offensive start of his career. His best friend, Luis Rengel, was by Lopez’s side at the funeral. Rengel had also spent time living with Lopez and his sister at her home and felt a special bond with the two of them.
“I told him, ‘I’m going to get 20 for her,’ ” Lopez said. “And he said, ‘Yeah, I think you can do it.’ “
Not only has Lopez kept the promise, he did it with a month to play. Rengel had followed his nightly progress and was the first to congratulate Lopez, via text message, after Lopez hit No. 20 on Aug. 29 against Kansas City Royals reliever Roman Colon at Safeco Field.
“He told me, ‘You did it!’ ” Lopez said.
And Lopez has kept doing it, now at 24 home runs and — with 91 runs batted in — seeking his first 100-RBI season as well.
Those are numbers the Mariners have long envisioned and are fueling internal discussion about whether they should keep Lopez, still only 25, as a power-hitting second baseman, or shift him to a corner infield spot — most likely at third with the expected departure of Adrian Beltre. Lopez’s glove isn’t as flashy as his bat, leading to speculation the team could also try to capitalize on his gaudy home run and RBI numbers by trading him for a hefty return.
The day Lopez left for the funeral on June 18, he was hitting .248, with a .278 on-base percentage and a .421 slugging percentage for an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .699. Since his June 25 return, he’s hit .281 with a .316 on-base percentage and slugged .505 for an OPS of .821.
Lopez doesn’t want to make excuses for his poor first half, especially the months of April and May. But he was struggling, he said, to hold it together. Only two years earlier, his brother, Gabriel, had been killed in a motorcycle crash in Venezuela while the Mariners were playing a June series in Chicago.
After hearing the news by telephone, knowing he couldn’t make it in time for the funeral, Lopez stayed with the team. But the death ate away at him, and his season went downhill.
This year, he battled those same emotions, knowing that his sister — who had fought cancer for several years — didn’t have much time left.
“It’s been a tough season,” Lopez said. “It’s no excuse, but I didn’t feel comfortable. My sister was dying and I was playing baseball every day. I didn’t feel real comfortable. But I tried to keep my mind strong.”
He’d talk to Enzy on the phone twice a week, but she was often too weak to reply.
“I didn’t want to talk to her that much,” he said. “I didn’t want to feel bad inside. If I talked to her every day, afterwards I’d feel really bad inside. She couldn’t talk on the phone.”
Lopez got a call from his parents on June 17, before a game in San Diego, telling him to hurry to Venezuela to say his final goodbyes. He tried to get a flight, but was told he’d have to wait until morning, so he played that night and hit a home run.
His sister died at 1 a.m., just hours before Lopez’s flight. This time, though, unlike his brother’s death, he chose to be with his family. It wasn’t easy, but gave him some closure he’d missed two years earlier.
“I didn’t sleep for two nights,” he said. “I just couldn’t.”
Lopez spent his days helping Enzy’s husband and their children, two boys and two girls, ages 18, 16, 15 and 11, through their grief. It was during this time the idea of promising the 20-homer milestone to his sister took shape.
Lopez had reflected back on his first year of winter ball in Venezuela, at age 18, when he went 0 for 9 in his first two games. Lopez had been so excited to be back playing in his homeland, only to find himself getting lambasted on local sports-talk radio.
“She sat me down and told me not to worry about it,” Lopez said. “She told me, ‘I believe in you and you’re going to get a hit the next time you play. So, stop worrying so much and just play your game.’ “
Lopez left on a road trip the next day and went 4 for 4. He had two more hits the following day.
When his team returned home, he gave his sister the ball from his first hit.
“For me, she was a friend,” he said. “I told her everything and she listened. She was a sister, but she was also my friend.”
When Lopez first returned from Venezuela, he did early hitting work with coach Alan Cockrell, focusing on hitting the ball the other way to center and right field.
Though most of his home runs are pulled to left, Lopez has tried to lift his other numbers by spraying the ball around more.
“They used to say I couldn’t hit in the second half,” he said. “I think I’ve showed that I can.”
Lopez is proudest of how he’s been able to hit throughout the order, versatility honed his past two years of winter ball. Though most defensive metrics show his range at second to be average at best, he plans to work on that this winter.
After that, he’ll play wherever the team needs him.
Mariners performance coach Steve Hecht, who helps players with the mental side of baseball, said Lopez has done his best to leave things behind when he takes the field.
“He and I have used humor as the biggest tool for our relationship,” Hecht said. “You can tell he enjoys the game when he’s out there, just by some of the things he’ll say. He’s very confident and he’ll say, ‘I’m going to take this guy deep.’
“More often than not, he’ll do it.”
Hecht knows it isn’t all fun and games for Lopez. But he feels the second baseman’s humorous side is genuine. That he takes a lighthearted approach to situations that would frustrate other players — like making a self-deprecating quip when his bat gets shattered by a pitcher.
“He has a real calm, consistent demeanor,” Hecht said. “This game can be very frustrating. He seems to keep it in perspective. I’m pretty sure this brought him some perspective when it comes to the game. He knows it isn’t life or death.”
Lopez admits that nothing could fully prepare him for what he’s gone through for the second time in two years.
It helped that his wife, Katerine, returned with their 2-year-old son, Jose, to Seattle to be with him in late July, after spending a month in Venezuela tending to the family and its needs.
But some days are tougher than others for Lopez, who went 0 for 5 his first game back after the funeral. He had a talk with himself afterward, one he reminds himself of when things aren’t going so well.
“I told myself, this is my family but this is my job, too,” he said. “I need to keep strong. My family members have died, but I don’t want to throw my job away. I want to keep going. And the way for me to help my family now is for me to keep doing well at my job.”
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read his daily blog at www.seattletimes.com/Mariners