The emotions washed over Jorge López in a wave of memories, details from a life with his grandfather by his side. The Orioles’ right-handed reliever had flown back to Puerto Rico to be there — because he had to be. His grandfather had been there for López, after all.
Missing a few games meant nothing compared to saying goodbye.
“He did so much for us,” López said. “I wanted to do more for him. That’s the thing: I feel like he gave me more.”
He gave López baseball, for one. Each day after his grandfather got home from work — he spent 35 years with the police, serving as a narcotics traffic captain — he and López would sit down on the couch and turn on baseball. His grandfather would walk him through each play, explaining why a player did what he did.
When López would play at the park near their house, his grandfather would be in the stands, cheering him on. He accompanied López on his first travel baseball tournament outside their hometown of Caguas, Puerto Rico. López will never forget the feeling of winning that tournament — but even better was the feeling of sharing that win with his grandfather.
Once López reached the major leagues, now starring as the closer for the Orioles, López’s grandfather would call almost every day. They’d talk baseball, of course. His grandfather would tell López how well he was playing, then tell López how he was telling everyone who would listen in Caguas the same, despite the dementia that afflicted him before his death last month at 78.
“He was the man,” López said. “For me, he is my father.”
That all flowed through López’s mind when he saw his grandfather’s casket last month in Puerto Rico. It became a reminder of who helped López reach this point — holding a 0.82 ERA with 10 saves for the Orioles. But more importantly, it was a reminder to López of all the people he leans on and learns from.
As the 29-year-old contemplated the unbalanced nature of parenthood — how his grandfather gave him more than López could ever repay — it reinforced another perspective. Instead of paying his grandfather or mother back, he can pay it forward to his son, Mikael, by being the sort of father his grandfather proved to be.
“He’s the inspiration of my family,” López said. “He taught us a lot.”
If there’s anyone López wants to grow up to emulate, it’s his grandfather. And as López continues to learn what it takes to be a father for Mikael, he thinks back on the example he had from his grandfather and mother growing up in Puerto Rico.
Baseball for López is deeper than it is for many. There are balls and strikes, but while a game rides on them, López feels the support for his son rides on those pitches, too. Mikael, who celebrated his 9th birthday party with the Orioles in Boston last month, has battled several autoimmune disorders since his birth.
There are no easy days. The combination of familial Mediterranean fever and Crohn’s disease has meant Mikael spends much of his life in the hospital, with López’s wife, Karla, the primary caretaker. Mikael received an intestinal transplant when he was a little over a year old. Last year, a bone marrow transplant offered a major improvement, allowing Mikael to watch his father pitch in person against the Red Sox for the first time in three years.
That was a joyous moment. López walked Mikael through the clubhouse at Fenway Park, saying hello to his teammates. The team surprised Mikael with two cakes — both car themed — and sang happy birthday.
But moments such as those for Mikael and his father have been few and far between, as López navigates fatherhood and a grueling baseball career.
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“I’ve been out of pretty much all his life,” López said. “For me, being the best father is not the one I’m doing now. I know it’s coming, though. I just have faith. I try to keep learning about it and just trusting. And so far, my wife has been huge all my life, and I think that helped me to get through everything.”
That’s where López’s mother comes in, as well. Whenever he has questions about fatherhood or how to handle a certain situation, she’s the person he calls. She’s not one to explain things over the phone, though, so she’ll book a flight and teach him in person.
The lessons started early, well before López’s mother realized her son was paying attention. López’s sister, Yani, has a verbal disorder, he said. Watching his mother care for her — never treating her as if she was different than her other children — helped López understand the care and patience required in his position with Mikael.
“She’s my father, she’s my mom, she’s my best friend, she’s my everything,” López said of his mother, who raised López and his siblings as a single mother after López’s parents divorced when he was 10. “From seeing her, talking through those topics … that’s our connection.”
In the weeks after López’s grandfather died, the chance to bring Mikael to Boston for his 9th birthday meant everything. He knows he can’t be there all the time — and that eats at him, missing those moments with his son. But for the moments he can share, he plans to cherish them even more, grateful for the opportunity to be a father at all.
And grateful for the parental figures who brought him here, setting an example for what he can be for Mikael.
“Just getting help. Trying to find the good people who are going to help you,” López said. “I’m not afraid of that, and that’s why I’m still going. [Mikael is] my big motivation, but we sometimes need more help. … I just keep learning. Just keep learning, and try to be better person, better father, better husband.”