"[An] interesting read." —Times-Journal
Behind the Plate: A Catcher's View of the Braves Dynastyby Javy Lopez
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Popular Atlanta Braves catcher Javier “Javy” Lopez opens up in this autobiography to tell his amazing story, from learning to play baseball on a neighborhood basketball court to his record of 42 home runs in a season by a catcher. The product of a lower-middle-class background in Puerto Rico, Javy had to overcome numerous hardshipsnot the least of which was a language barrierto fulfill his destiny as one of the most accomplished catchers of the modern era. He tells of bumps along the way to success, including why he overstated his signing bonus as well as the time in the minors when he cried during an all-night meltdown due to his struggles on the field. But he went on to be named MVP of the 1996 National League Championship Series, and played on 12 of the Atlanta Braves’ unprecedented 14 straight division-winning teams of the 1990s and 2000s. From his relationship with great teammates such as Greg Maddux and John Smoltz, to his failed comeback attempt with the Braves in 2008, this autobiography tells all about the handsome, warm, engaging Lopez and how he became one of baseball’s most popular players.
"[An] interesting read." —Times-Journal
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Behind the Plate
A Catcher's View of the Braves Dynasty
By Javy Lopez, Gary Caruso
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2012 Javier Lopez and Gary Caruso
All rights reserved.
In the Book!
ANYONE WHO PLAYS PROFESSIONAL BASEBALL PLAYS FOR THE love of the game, as well as for the money and the perks that go along with it. If you have that kind of talent — enough talent to be paid to play baseball — you probably love to play the game. Some players like it more than others do, and maybe a few don't truly love it at all. But that's rare.
I mean, what's not to like? Sure, there are parts of it that aren't fun — traveling in the middle of the night and being away from home a lot, for example. When you do it every day for six or seven months, it's not as glamorous as most people think it is. But you're playing baseball for a living — a very, very good living. It's a dream come true!
In my case, and I think in most players' cases, you don't just play baseball to play it. Regardless of what kind of player you are, I think you want to reach certain goals and maybe eventually set records. And with all the records they keep in baseball, it's possible for most players — if they're good enough, or if they're in the right place at the right time — to someday get their name in the record book.
You don't necessarily have to be a Hall of Famer to be in the record book. You don't have to be Hank Aaron. There's room for a lot of names in there, and I think every player would like to have his name in the book, whether it's for a few weeks, a few seasons, or many years.
I know I wanted to have my name in there. I wanted to leave my mark when I retired.
One of my first goals after I reached the majors full-time in 1994 was to make the National League All-Star team, and I did that three times (1997, 1998, and 2003).
I also wanted to win a Silver Slugger Award, which recognizes the best hitter in the league at each position. The managers and coaches vote on it every year, and I won that in 2003.
Then I wanted to win a Gold Glove. It's sort of like the Silver Slugger, but it's for fielding rather than hitting. By 2003 I was 32 years old and already had nine full seasons in the big leagues and late-season call-ups in two others. But I was getting older, and I knew that my chances of winning a Gold Glove were dwindling, even though I was working harder and harder on my catching.
I was pretty close to winning a Gold Glove at one point. As a matter of fact, I thought I should have won it in 1998 over Charles Johnson, in my opinion. Johnson, who was traded from the Marlins to the Dodgers on May 14 that year, had eight errors, a .992 fielding percentage, and threw out 40 percent of attempted base stealers. I had just five errors, a .995 fielding percentage, and threw out 34 percent of base stealers. But I never achieved my goal of winning a Gold Glove. I know I wasn't the best catcher in the world, but I know I had years when I could have won it. That's a very valuable award for a catcher, and I really wanted to win it.
After the 2002 season, things weren't looking too good for me in terms of setting any kind of significant records. In fact, that was the furthest thing from my mind. I just wanted to get my career back on track, because I had posted career lows — or close to it — in most hitting stats: a .233 batting average, 11 home runs, and 52 runs batted in. It was an awfully disappointing season from a personal standpoint. Rather than complain and cry about it, though, I decided to take care of it. Right after the season, I started working out. I said, "Let's fix it!"
The first thing I did was start losing weight. I began working out like I'd never worked out in my life, and that's a lot, because I always worked out. That off-season, though, I was working out twice a day.
At the time, I was having problems with my marriage, which I'll discuss later. Working out was the one thing that helped me forget about all that. I was a workaholic and lost 25 pounds, down to 220 from 245.
Even though I felt great, my marriage was still in the back of my mind. I didn't have the best spring training, but I felt great physically. I was hustling and running pretty well.
Just like any other season, I started kind of slowly. But this year was different. I needed to get my bat going, and for a very good reason. I was going home to Puerto Rico to play for the first time.
THAT WAS THE YEAR THAT MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL DECIDED THAT THE MONTREAL EXPOS WOULD PLAY 22 GAMES IN PUERTO RICO. ATTENDANCE IN MONTREAL WASN'T GOOD, AND MLB WAS CONSIDERING MOVING THE TEAM OR POSSIBLY EVEN ELIMINATING IT, ALONG WITH ANOTHER FRANCHISE. SO THE EXPOS PLAYED GAMES IN SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO, AT HIRAM BITHORN STADIUM IN 2003 AND 2004 BEFORE RELOCATING TO WASHINGTON, D.C., IN 2005 AND BECOMING THE NATIONALS.
The Braves were one of the first teams scheduled to travel to Puerto Rico. We were going there the third week of the season, April 15 through 17. I was excited about it, but I was worried also. We played our first seven games — and I still didn't have a home run. The last thing I wanted was to go to Puerto Rico with a zero in my home run column.
Just before we left for Puerto Rico, we played a three-game series against the Marlins in Miami. I went 1-for-4 in the first game. Just a single. Still no home runs.
The next night (April 12), I batted against Carl Pavano in the fourth inning. He had already struck me out in the second inning and had me this time with two outs and no one on base. He threw me a fastball inside, and all I did was use my hands. I didn't use my body at all, but I got a hold of it, and the ball barely cleared the fence.
I thought, Yes! At least I'm going to Puerto Rico with HR 1next to my name!
Sometimes it seems the toughest hit to get is the first one of the season. Same thing with home runs. It sure was the case for me in 2003.
I didn't play the last game in Florida on Sunday, and then we had an off day on Monday. By then I was really looking forward to going home. It was the first time I played for the Braves back home, and it was a really big deal. My youngest sister, Elaine, had a party for us in San Juan. It was at a club on a pier where the big cruise ships come in. There was food, drinks, a band, a lot of guests, and the whole Braves team. Even my dad was there. The place was packed! Everybody had a tremendous time.
We stayed at the El Conquistador Resort, which is owned by the Waldorf Astoria and is one of the top luxury hotels in Puerto Rico. It's located right on the east coast, and they also own a little island nearby named Palomino Island. My brother-in-law's family owns 10 percent of that island, and they have a house there with guest quarters, kayaks, jet skis — everything. The hotel rented the rest of the island to my brother-in-law's family for that day. The hotel has a cable car that takes guests down to the ferry, and then the ferry takes people to the island.
The day after the party, everyone met — well, those who were able to wake up early! There were about 10 of us. We took a bus down to the wharf, where my sister had a boat waiting to take us to the island.
Remember, it was a day off for the team. And it's a good thing it was!
We spent the entire day on the island, eating and relaxing on the water. Andruw Jones, Rafael Furcal, Marcus Giles, Vinny Castilla, Jung Bong, Robert Fick, Henry Blanco, and Ray King were all there, among others.
We had an unbelievable time. The thing I remember most is Vinny Castilla and Rafael Furcal getting a ticket from the police for running too fast, too close on the jet skis. We all got a big laugh out of that.
When we finally got back to the hotel, we all crashed. But we were ready to go the next day.
There were big crowds for the games, and a lot of fans had signs supporting me. That stadium holds about 18,000 fans, and it was pretty full for all three games. I'm sure there were more people than there would have been had we played in Montreal. It certainly was a better baseball atmosphere because there weren't many empty seats like there often were in Montreal's Olympic Stadium.
There are a lot of Braves fans in Puerto Rico because our games were broadcast on TBS for many years, and they finally got a chance to see us play in person. I wanted to look good, but I ended the first day 0-for-4. Ground-outs my first two times up, then a fly to center and a strikeout. The next game was more of the same — another 0-for-4. At least I didn't strike out that game — two ground balls and two fly-outs.
Back-to-back collars. Great! Maybe I was trying too hard.
My dad was a nervous wreck. They were showing him and my sister in the stands on TV all the time. Every time I came to the plate, the cameras were all over them.
Fortunately, even though I didn't hit, I looked good behind the plate, and we won. The Expos were playing well; before we got there, they'd just swept their first four games in Puerto Rico from the Mets.
But we came down and did the opposite — we swept them. The first two games were close. We won the first one 2–1 in 10 innings and then won the second one 3–2. Actually, the third game was close too, though you wouldn't know it from the final score. And I finally had a lot to do with that.
I remember asking Jung Bong, the pitcher from South Korea, if I could use his bat that game — just to do something different. He said, "Sure."
I got a base hit in the second inning and scored to tie the game 2–2. Joking around, I asked for the ball, like it was my first hit in the big leagues. It was my first big-league hit in Puerto Rico, after all.
I grounded out in my second at-bat in the third inning and flied out in the fifth. But in my fourth at-bat, I hit a home run with a man on in the seventh inning to break a 6–6 tie and give us an 8–6 lead.
The whole stadium was going nuts. My dad was jumping up and down, celebrating. I never thought it was going to happen, and it sure felt great.
Unfortunately, the Expos came back to score two runs in the eighth to tie the game. In the ninth, I came up with two runners on and struck out. I could have won the game right there, but we wound up going extra innings for the second time in three games. In the end, I was glad we did.
We got two runs in the top of the 10 to take the lead, and then I came up with the bases loaded. I hit a grand slam off Rocky Biddle to wrap up a six-run inning and a 14–8 win. I was 3-for-6 for the day with two home runs and six RBIs. It was nice to get back on track after those first two games.
I'm just glad it happened. It was nuts after the game — everybody was very happy, especially my dad and my sister.
Everyone wanted autographs, and the media wanted interviews. There wasn't much time to celebrate, though, because we had to get on a plane to come back home. We had a game the next night in Atlanta against the Phillies.
I was only hitting .234 going into that last game in Puerto Rico, but those three hits raised my average to .264, and I finished the year at .328 — a career high. I sure didn't know it at the time, but from that point on, 2003 was a year to remember — a career year.
I LOOK BACK ON THAT LAST GAME IN PUERTO RICO AS REALLY THE START OF MY BEST SEASON IN THE BIG LEAGUES. AFTER THAT SERIES, I STARTED CONSISTENTLY HITTING HOME RUNS. I DON'T KNOW IF I CAUGHT FIRE BECAUSE WE HAD BEEN IN PUERTO RICO OR IF IT WOULD HAVE HAPPENED ANYWAY.
I do remember that after I got rolling, when I'd hit a home run, Joe Simpson, one of the Braves broadcasters, kept saying, "Who is that? Javy or Gary Sheffield?"
Sheffield was our All-Star right fielder, and he was known throughout his career for hitting the ball very hard. And that's the way I was hitting it — hard!
I couldn't have asked for a better season than 2003. I only played in 129 games and had just 457 at-bats. What could I have done if I had played in 150 games? That's always been a question in my mind.
I had career highs in average (.328), home runs (43, fourth in the NL), RBIs (109, eighth), slugging percentage (.687), and on-base percentage (.378, fourth). I made the All-Star team, won the Silver Slugger, and finished fifth in voting for Most Valuable Player in the National League.
I always knew I was capable of putting up those kind of numbers. I just never had the patience. Those are the kind of numbers Mike Piazza put up, and I knew I was capable of that. Unfortunately, it took me 10 years before it happened. But I always knew I could do it.
Home runs were the big story for me in 2003. I averaged one home run every 10.6 at-bats, which was the second-best frequency in the NL after Barry Bonds (8.7). If I'd gotten 500 at-bats that year — which only happened in 2004 when I was with Baltimore — it is projected that my home run total would have been 47.
But because I was a catcher and played in Atlanta's heat and humidity, our manager Bobby Cox believed in giving me — and all the other starting catchers he had in his career — regular time off to keep us as fresh as possible.
In the end, it was my home runs that year that put me in the record book:
MOST HOME RUNS IN A SEASON, CATCHER — Javy Lopez (42) 2003
The 42 isn't a typo. I did hit 43 home runs that season, but only 42 counted toward the record because one of my homers came as a pinch-hitter on July 20. The old record of 41 was set by the Mets' Todd Hundley in 1996.
Setting the home run record for catchers was a long shot for me because I usually didn't get that many at-bats. Also, Mike Piazza was playing in my era, and you could always count on him to hit 35 to 40 homers per year. I'm sure a lot more people expected him to break the record. He actually hit 40 home runs as a catcher twice — in 1997 with the Dodgers and in 1999 with the Mets. He had well over 500 at-bats both seasons, as he was the main guy in the lineup.
In 1996 Hundley played in 153 games and had 540 at-bats and 624 plate appearances (compared to my 129 games, 457 at-bats, and 495 plate appearances). He hit 41 home runs and had 112 RBIs with a .259 batting average.
When I reached 10 home runs on May 22, I wasn't thinking about a record, and I still wasn't thinking about it when I got to 20 on June 21. I put together a pretty good stretch at Turner Field in early June. I hit a home run against Texas on June 5. I didn't play the next day, and then I hit two home runs against Pittsburgh on June 7 and another one on June 8. After I hit that one, I got hit on the hand by a foul ball and almost came out of the game. But I decided to stay in, and I hit another home run in my last at-bat.
Two days in a row with two home runs, and five home runs in three games. I had eight games that year with two home runs, four of them in June within about a two-and-a-half-week period.
I also remember hitting two homers against the Phillies on June 24 when Kevin Millwood was pitching against us for the first time since the Braves traded him for Johnny Estrada, my backup catcher. I didn't have any idea about how that trade would eventually impact my career, but I found out that winter. We beat Millwood that day 5–3.
When I reached 30 as a catcher on August 8 with almost two months left in the season, I started thinking I had a good chance of breaking the record. That's when I began hearing comments from the media, people asking me, "Do you think you might be able to break the record for home runs by a catcher?"
I didn't even know what the record was. I just said, "I don't know. I'll continue to focus on what I'm doing, and if it happens, good. If it doesn't happen, I just want to finish the year putting up good numbers."
I remember a game against the Mets on September 3 in New York. It was miserable that day, raining nonstop and cold. I played the whole game, and we got beat 9–3.
But in the ninth inning, there were two outs, and we put in Estrada to pinch-hit. I was in the on-deck circle, and I told him to do me a favor: "Get on base. I'm going to hit one."
Johnny said, "No problem. I'll take care of you."
He got a hit, so I got a chance to bat again.
Sometimes players get a feeling that they're going to do something in a particular at-bat, and I did exactly what I had predicted. I hit one of my longest home runs ever at Shea Stadium, into the second deck. When I stepped on home plate, the first thing Estrada said was, "You owe me one."
Excerpted from Behind the Plate by Javy Lopez, Gary Caruso. Copyright © 2012 Javier Lopez and Gary Caruso. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Javy Lopez is a three-time All-Star and the catcher for the Atlanta Braves powerhouse teams of the 1990s, including the squad that won the 1995 World Series. He lives in Suwanee, Georgia. Gary Caruso is a sports journalist, Braves historian, and author of The Braves Encyclopedia and Turner Field: Rarest of Diamonds. He lives in Vista, California.
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I started following the Braves at the end of the 90's and Javy quickly became my favorite player to watch. When the Braves did not resign him I followed his career to the Orioles. It was really interesting to get to read what was going on behind the scenes and hear what Javy's feelings were about this time. I enjoyed reading funny stories about some of his teammates and hearing his thoughts about several of the Braves' pitchers in the 90's. Javy's love of baseball and his fans stands out throughout this book. The writing is very simple & it sounds as if Javy just sat down with you & started recalling significant memories from his life. I really, really enjoyed learning more about Javy and I would definitely recommend this book!
This book was very interesting . I learned a lots of things I didn't know. I read the whole book in less than two days. I loves the Braves so that is why I bought it. Plus I remembered when Javy played for the braves. I have been a Braves for a long time. I recommend this book highly I enjoyed it. I believe you will enjoy it to.