El Lanzador

Vicente Lopez was almost the Cuban Koufax

He had a wife and daughter. Responsibility, exile, and, for the first time, nonbaseball labor beckoned. He didn't have the connections some former Cuban major-leaguers enjoyed. Nor, up until now, had he missed them. "I never worked [at any other job] while I played ball," he says with satisfaction. "I built a couple of houses and some apartments in Havana and made my money that way." The properties, though, had been confiscated by Castro.

So in 1964 the ex-baseball star took a job as an inventory clerk at a food warehouse in Dania. "They would bring lobster, crab, beef, vegetables, produce, whatever, and we would sort it out and send it to the restaurants in the New England Oyster House chain," he remembers. "All to make a lousy dollar an hour. It seems crazy that people would work for so little, but we did." He would work there for the next twenty years. Co-workers wondered what it had been like to play baseball in front of tens of thousands of people, asked about games they had seen him pitch in Cuba, and told their friends they knew Vicente Lopez, the ballplayer -- "el pelotero."

At 40, Lopez found himself in the same position as many of his Cuban ballplaying contemporaries: exiled in Miami, his career over, with little opportunity to exploit his previous fame. Joe DiMaggio shilled for New York-area banks and sold coffee makers. Ted Williams hawked sporting goods for Sears and Roebuck. What could Vicente Lopez -- who, on the island of Cuba, had been as well-known as those players -- do?

Photo courtesy charles monfort
A star is born: Vicente Lopez (at top, front row, seated, fifth from left) as a rookie with Almendares; later, as a poster boy for Antonio Prío's Havana mayoral campaign (above)
headshot courtesy vicente lopez
A star is born: Vicente Lopez (at top, front row, seated, fifth from left) as a rookie with Almendares; later, as a poster boy for Antonio Prío's Havana mayoral campaign (above)

In 1970 he started Los Cubanos Libres. At the time, recalls Lopez, there was only one other venture like it in Miami, the Latino American Baseball Academy, which had been founded by Carlos "Patato" Pascual, brother of Minnesota Twins star Camilo Pascual and himself a veteran of both the Cuban League and the major leagues.

Lopez operated the academy with the help of other former Cuban ballplayers, among them Moreno, Sandalio Consuegra (a star pitcher in Cuba and, briefly, in the majors), and Ray Blanco. The business was an instant success. Cuban exile parents who had grown up marveling at the feats of Lopez, Moreno, and the academy's other coaches eagerly signed up their children, hoping the old pros might make big-leaguers out of them. "We had 200 kids," exclaims Lopez, thinking back to the academy's early days. "Every team would play a double-header."

One of those kids was Rafael Palmeiro, the Texas Rangers slugger who, at the beginning of this major-league season, is only 53 home runs shy of 500 for his career. "I played for Vicente in the early Seventies," recalls Palmeiro, talking on a cell phone from the Rangers' spring-training facility in Port Charlotte. "I started when I was about nine," he says, nostalgically, "and played until I was twelve or so. Right near Edison High, on that field just off I-95."

Lopez has followed his onetime pupil's career. "We were all so happy when he was signed to a professional contract," he says. "He's a tremendous hitter. You know the only reason he's not a superstar? He's too quiet. He'll hit a home run, round the bases with his head down, and go back to the dugout." Lopez smiles. It isn't a criticism.

"Look, it's Vicente!" screams the small group of eight-, nine-, and ten-year-olds gathered at Riverside Park in Little Havana for the weekly Saturday-morning game between Havana and Almendares. It's Lopez's first visit to the park in almost seven weeks. Dressed in a pair of black slacks and a short-sleeve sport shirt, he steps gingerly behind his walker, a collapsible device he's been learning to navigate (in a few days, he will have ditched it). "Oye, Dormilón," he calls out to one of the late arrivals, referring to the small, slender boy by his nickname, "Sleepyhead." The boy covers his face with his glove in mock shame. A few old men, regular spectators from the neighborhood, spot the ailing ballplayer and cross the street to say hello.

Lopez surveys the field. There won't be enough players for a regulation game today, so the kids will have to settle for an improvised contest in which adults pitch and catch. Enrollment at the academy is more diverse than it once was: All the children are Hispanic, but not exclusively Cuban anymore, and there's even a girl. It's also smaller than it has ever been. Some children stopped coming during Lopez's illness. But the pitcher-turned-teacher says the trouble started even before that, when rival academies raided his talent pool and stole away his players. He won't mention the culprits by name, but the subject angers him. "You would have never seen something like that years ago," Lopez observes. "The guys who ran [the various schools] were different. They had played together. They were men."

In Lopez's absence, a few of the parents have stepped in, trying to hold the academy together, until its founder and only employee feels well enough to return. For the past two months, Norma Alvarez, a language interpreter whose grandson plays in the academy, has been coming to Riverside Park six days a week, keeping score and offering encouragement to the ragtag squad of Reds and Blues. "Listen to me," she implores when their minds and bodies wander from the game, "Vicente is going to get a report on how each of you is doing!" She isn't the only one who misses Lopez's presence. "That's one of the poorest areas in my district," says City of Miami Commissioner Joe Sanchez, whose office recently responded to Alvarez's complaint of insufficient nighttime lighting on the field. "I'd much rather know the kids are there, playing baseball, than on the street, getting into trouble."

Lopez would like to get back as soon as possible. He misses prepping the field, throwing batting practice, and umpiring. Friends tell him to take it easy. But don't they know? Vicente Lopez has never liked taking himself out of a game.

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I grew up across the street from this park and Vicente was the only good thing that park had going for it. They need to build a monument for that man he was a saint.

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