Lopes spreads wisdom on running to Dodgers
First-base coach known for helping players reach their potential
He won't be the subject of any blockbuster movies, but Davey Lopes is a transformer.
A forceful, straightforward voice on the coaching staff of Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, Lopes takes exceptional talent and shapes and molds it into winning performance on the field. He has done it repeatedly, and he shows no signs of slowing down or losing any of his passion at the age of 67.
A superb leadoff man and baserunner for 16 Major League seasons, Lopes has consolidated all that acquired knowledge, awareness and insight to do wonders for the careers of superstars Matt Kemp and Jimmy Rollins, along with dozens of others from Philadelphia to Southern California.
Lopes' managerial career with the Brewers ended abruptly in 2002, 15 games into his third season, but he lost none of his drive when he joined the coaching ranks and began teaching and reaching players, lifting attitudes, confidence levels and performances.
"To tell you the truth, I'm still upset we let Davey get away," said Rollins, the Phillies' shortstop and 2007 National League Most Valuable Player Award winner. "I know it's a business, and Davey had to do what he had to do. But he meant a lot to us. I miss him.
"He definitely showed me a lot of things and made me a better player."
Lopes' baseball story began in Los Angeles, and that's where it figures to end given his value to the organization, something the new ownership team is sure to grasp as it becomes more familiar with the club and its internal dynamics.
Lopes returned to the Dodgers after a 30-year absence in 2011, lured home by general manager Ned Colletti. His impact on the gifted Kemp -- coming off a disappointing 2010 campaign -- was immediate.
"When Davey came here," Kemp said, "he told me probably the most important thing I've heard. He said, 'You need to pay attention to everything, watch film ... be more of a student of the game. If you do that, you can be one of the best players ever to play the game.'"
Kemp, just entering his prime at 27, has been transformed into the game's most consistently dangerous offensive weapon since Lopes arrived.
A .285 career hitter with .336 on-base and .472 slugging marks through 2010, Kemp's numbers are .333, .410 and .616, respectively, since the start of the 2011 season. In 192 games during that time, the reigning NL Gold Glove Award-winning center fielder has 51 homers and 153 RBIs -- matchless production in the sport.
Lopes never would take or accept credit for what Kemp has done. He's not in it attention or acclaim. Lopes is in it to win it, pure and simple, and he won't be satisfied until the Dodgers achieve what his powerhouse clubs of the 1970s and early '80s did.
"It's a thrill to come back," Lopes said. "I started with L.A., and hopefully I'll finish with L.A. It's a great organization. Hopefully, I'll help bring it back to where it wants to be with championships and World Series. That's our goal.
"From the standpoint of a coaching staff, you have to get the best out of every single player. One thing you have to remember is you're always a teacher. You have to adapt to today's player. When we came along, we had to adapt to the coaching staff and manager. Now it's a little reversed. You have to adapt to today's game, how these players think -- and incorporate a little old school to it."
A Major League coach for 24 seasons with six clubs, Lopes took on full responsibility for the Phillies' running game from 2007-10 at the behest of manager Charlie Manuel. Rollins, Chase Utley, Shane Victorino and Jayson Werth took flight to new heights, giving the Phils the best stolen-base percentage in the Majors during Lopes' time as coach.
"When Davey got here in 2007," Rollins said, "he asked me what my [career stolen-base] percentage was. I told him it was 79 or 80 [80, actually]. He said, 'We've got to get you up to at least 82. That's four more opportunities to score a run.'
"I thought about it and realized that those four runs could make the difference in games -- and a pennant race. Four runs, four wins, in a tight race could get you in the playoffs."
Rollins improved dramatically in '07 with Lopes' guidance, scoring a league-best 139 runs with a career-high 88 extra-base hits and 41 steals. His stolen-base rate was 87 percent. It added up to the NL MVP Award.
Rollins credits Lopes with making it easier for him to steal by breaking down video of opposing pitchers.
"Davey's unbelievable for players, having him around," said Rollins, off to a slow start this season as the Phillies scrape to score runs. "You know when a guy has done exactly what you do, it gives him credibility."
Lopes, a native of East Providence, R.I., scored 1,023 runs and stole 557 bases -- No. 25 on the all-time list -- with a high of 77 in 1975. He played in nine postseason series for the Dodgers, winning it all in 1981 before being dealt to Oakland before the following season.
Lopes sees no reason why that kind of bold action can't resurface in the uniforms once graced by his predecessors, Jackie Robinson and Maury Wills.
"We have such a great tradition of aggressive baserunning here, starting with Jackie and then Maury," Lopes said. "I want our guys to run the bases aggressively but also intelligently. There's a fine line."
Kemp, who had 40 steals last year to go with 39 homers and boldly made 50-50 his mission this year, draws most of the attention. But he's not the only guy on the roster who can fly.
In 24-year-old shortstop Dee Gordon, the Dodgers have one of the game's fastest players. Lean as a greyhound, Gordon's challenge is to get on base in his leadoff role. Once he lands on first, he generally gets around quickly.
"He's learning to read pitchers and react to them," Lopes said. "When he puts that together with the athletic fundamentals, he'll be an elite guy.
"Dee hears it a lot -- can he take the pounding? He's tired of talking about it, and it will follow him until he eliminates the doubt. I can see why people have doubts. But something about this kid's makeup is a little different. He strives to be one of the best in the game. That's his goal.
"Sometimes it's good to play with a chip on your shoulder from the standpoint of people saying you can't do this or that. It can be a good thing to have. He'll tell you he's strong, he can do it, and I'm not the one to say he can't. I will not bet against this kid."
The kind of faith Lopes shows in his students is palpable. Gordon lights up when he talks about his mentor, but he is careful not to reveal any secrets of the basestealing trade.
"I don't want to get into that," Gordon said, grinning, "but I know how blessed I am to have Davey around to teach me."
Mattingly was enthused he learned Colletti was pursuing Lopes after the 2010 season.
"We'd been trying for three years to work on our baserunning, get pressure on people, and we didn't seem to get through," Mattingly said. "Davey had a reputation with the guys I talked to. They all said, 'Davey's the best, Davey's the best.'
"Davey is just straight up ... matter-of-fact. In a good way. It's in your face a little bit, it's direct, but it's in a way that these guys get it. So these guys, they're looking at keys [in pitchers' moves], they're trying to pick up something all the time. And if you see it, you go. If you don't see it, you don't go. Davey is great with those guys."
Lopes has no interest in the stressful role of managing.
"I love what I'm doing," he said. "The players have to buy into it. All they have to do is listen. If they do, I guarantee they'll be successful. It's 100 percent about reading keys, knowing tendencies. I was pretty successful as a player, and I was blessed in Philadelphia to be asked to control the running game. It worked well for us, and we're trying to do the same thing here."
The Phillies ended a 13-year drought by winning the NL East in Lopes' first season, and they stayed atop the division throughout his four-year stay. They averaged 93 wins and reached the World Series twice, winning it in 2008.
The Dodgers, after finishing strong in 2011, are leading the NL West with one of the Majors' best records.
He's no miracle worker, but Lopes is a transformer. He teaches great talents how to be great players. And his students are happy to offer heartfelt testimony.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.