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J. Lopez: a Brave new world

The Baltimore Sun

CELEBRATION CITY, Fla. -- One-by-one, the Atlanta Braves stars walk off the field as the kids in the stands scream "Chipper" and "Tex" and "Mr. McCann."

The nonroster invitee to Atlanta's camp tries to duck out of sight, but these autograph seekers are prepared.

It has been five years since he has worn this uniform, but he's unmistakable. There's that bow-legged gait, that slightly dazed smile and that No. 8 on the back of the Braves uniform that he wore for more than a decade

"Javy! Javy! Mr. Lopez, can you sign for me?"

Javy Lopez is 37. He hasn't played in the big leagues since September 2006. But, in his second comeback attempt in as many springs, he's a Brave again.

Lopez surely doesn't need the money, not after the $22.5 million contract he signed with the Orioles before the 2004 season. But spending a year away from the game has made the former All-Star catcher realize he's not ready to give it up.

"Not only physically do I feel great, but I am happy because I am back here with the Braves," Lopez said this spring. "To have my old number hanging in my locker, it is just a great feeling."

Lopez lost that loving feeling in 2006, when the Orioles signed catcher Ramon Hernandez, basically relegating Lopez to backup backstop and part-time designated hitter. It stung. Lopez felt the team needed better pitching to compete in the American League East. Instead, they bought hitters -- and duplicates, in his opinion.

"They should have traded me before they signed Ramon. That would've given me a chance to play somewhere else," Lopez said. "But no, again, instead of looking for a pitcher, they look for another catcher. And we ended up in fourth again. Nothing changed."

He requested a trade, but his value coming off a hand injury -- and after a season in which he had only 15 homers in 103 games -- wasn't high. So he became a part-timer.

"It was frustrating, something I had never dealt with before," Lopez said. "I was used to being at a position working hard. Put in the work and I wouldn't have to be concerned about anything."

In August 2006, he was dealt to the Boston Red Sox for backup outfielder Adam Stern. He finished his three seasons in Baltimore with 46 homers, three more than his 2003 total in Atlanta.

"There was a lot of tension in that Orioles clubhouse. Not only were the players playing with tension, but the coaches were coaching with tension, afraid to get fired," he said. "Baltimore was, it's hard to explain. All I can say is everybody that left that team, they are all happy to be gone."

But things didn't work out in Boston, either. Lopez barely played and was released the next month. He went to camp with the Colorado Rockies in 2007 but was released in March. For the first time in his adult life, he stopped playing baseball.

"I spent a lot of quality time with my family," he said. "It kind of released my mind from baseball a little bit. The frustration and everything that happened the last two years, I needed to get it out of my system."

By last fall, he missed the game. He revamped his workouts, focusing on speed, power and agility drills used by football players, lifting tires and jumping hurdles. He also worked on his defense three times a week with Atlanta Braves bench coach Chino Cadahia. In December, Cadahia contacted the club's general manager, Frank Wren, and suggested a nonroster invitation to spring training.

With All-Star Brian McCann, 24, entrenched as the Braves' starter and a couple of young reserves on the 40-man roster, Wren wasn't overwhelmed by the idea.

"We really didn't anticipate giving him a chance, but I think it was his work ethic," Wren said. "He was working on his defensive game, which he never really had put a lot of attention to in the past."

Lopez knows he needs to show some improvement defensively to make the Braves. Ultimately, though, it comes down to his bat. The Braves would love his power off the bench. So far, he has been rusty.

He had just three hits in his first 14 spring at-bats, but two were homers. He was among the team leaders in slugging percentage, and his main competition for the backup job, Brayan Pena, also has struggled this month.

Lopez said he would consider going to the minors -- something he hasn't done for more than a week since 1993 -- if it helped his chances. He wants to be a major leaguer again, and not just a good spring story.

"I don't want to be on this team because I am Javy Lopez and I was here 11 years and they feel like they had to give me an opportunity," Lopez said. "I want to play here because I earned a position.

"I don't want to get it for free."

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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