Clearing his mind, though not his plate


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - To lose weight after the 2002 season, catcher Javy Lopez put himself on a strict diet. No carbs, no fat, no fun. How much smoked turkey can one man eat, anyway?

But it wasn't just the calories that had turned Lopez into a shell - and a rather soft one - of the player who made two All-Star teams with the Atlanta Braves and became one of the more identifiable faces in the organization.

A stressful divorce and the impact on his relationship with his two sons left him depressed and distracted. And baseball, for so long a passion, couldn't heal those emotional wounds. If anything, the game deepened them.

Knowing that Lopez eventually found peace in his life, and a healthier menu, makes it easier to digest his offensive stats from last summer. It makes more sense that he batted .328 with 43 home runs, a record for a major league catcher in a single season, and became an All-Star again for the first time since 1998. It's clearer why the Orioles were willing to give him $22.5 million over three years this winter and reserve him a choice spot in the middle of their redesigned lineup.

"Shape had a lot to do with it," Lopez said, "but most of it was mental."

More than just his body became lighter. So did the burden of hitting .233 with 11 homers heading into his free-agent year.

"Once you go through the worst time of your career, you want to have some way, somehow, to bounce back from it. It was so frustrating, so embarrassing for myself. Once the season ended, the next day I was already in the gym, I was already taking care of my personal life. I was doing all kinds of stuff I hadn't done in the past, and it really paid off," he said.

"I left all the worst years in the past and focused on having a good year. And it was during the season that something clicked and I started to hit home runs, and I believe that click is still in there."

The Orioles don't necessarily expect the tumblers to open up another 43-homer cache, but they're fairly certain he'll exceed the combined production (10) of last year's trio of Geromino Gil, Brook Fordyce and Robert Machado by a substantial margin. And he'll bring along the experience that comes from a stretch of playoff appearances that covers more than a decade and from catching some of baseball's most accomplished winners.

Once you've set a target for Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, doing it for Kurt Ainsworth and Eric DuBose shouldn't seem too challenging.

"He's valuable not only as a catcher running the ballgame," manager Lee Mazzilli said, "but in knowing how to win."

"He's been in the playoffs and caught a lot of great pitchers before," starting pitcher Sidney Ponson said. "He might see something that I don't see and come out there and tell me about it. He looks at those things."

Lopez, 33, has six weeks to adjust his eyes to an unfamiliar staff. He knows only a few teammates, including left-handed pitcher Omar Daal, an opponent since their days in the minor leagues.

Once accustomed to working with the same group of starters every year in Atlanta, Lopez had to get acquainted last spring with Mike Hampton, Russ Ortiz and Horacio Ramirez.

"Basically, the whole pitching staff in Atlanta was new," said Lopez, who usually didn't catch four-time Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux. "It was like me being with a different team."

Chairs in the clubhouse will be slid together so Lopez can chat with his pitchers and learn what's in their repertoires and their heads. He'll pay close attention during bullpen sessions to every tendency that might become important once the real games begin.

"That's what spring training is for, to get to know them and get on the same page," Lopez said.

"We just have to talk about it before the games," said Rodrigo Lopez, last year's Opening Day starter, who will surrender that honor to Ponson. "We'll have to make some little adjustments, the way I like to pitch and the way he likes to move. I don't think it's going to be a big process. One game or two games, that will be it for me.

"I feel good with Gil behind home plate and I still think he's a really good catcher, but when I heard Javy signed with the Orioles, it was very exciting. He will help Gil and the rest of the catchers, as well as the pitching staff."

For that to happen, Lopez also must become acclimated to a different league after 12 seasons in Atlanta.

"For me, baseball is the same everywhere," he said. "A lot of people say I'm going to see a lot more breaking balls here, and I probably will, because a lot of the ballparks are smaller and pitchers don't want to give up home runs. But I consider myself a good breaking ball hitter. I can adjust to it."

Should anyone doubt Lopez's ability to adapt?

Sensing after 2002 that his career was headed to the same place as all those fast-food wrappers, he lost 35 pounds. This winter was spent maintaining his weight rather than hacking at it like a belt-high fastball.

"I did have fun this time because I was eating fat every once in a while," he said, "but not as much as I used to."

Lopez also is engaged to be married, bringing the joy back in his personal and professional lives.

"Once I had peace of mind last year," he said, "it helped me to concentrate and play the game the way I really wanted to."

Before stepping into the batting cage for the first time this spring, Lopez took a few swings at the theory that his monster year in 2003 also was tied to his pending free agency and the motivation to impress potential suitors, as well as the Braves.

"I've had a contract year in the past, and I didn't do anything close to that. In 2001, I ended up hitting .267 with 17 home runs. That has nothing to do with it," he said.

"I know there are a lot of expectations from people, and I'm going to try to be the same kind of person I was last year. If I'm not, at least I want to try to be a player who can help the team win."

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