López Begins His Climb From Last Year's Depths

Felipe Lopez
"I just want to put last year behind me, and I already did," Felipe Lopez said. (Toni L. Sandys - The Washington Post)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 27, 2008

VIERA, Fla., Feb. 26 -- It is, throughout Florida and Arizona this time of year, something of a rite of spring. A veteran ballplayer reports to his team's training site, considers his season from a year ago -- when, say, he hit .245 and reached base less than 31 percent of the time, well below what he and others consider his potential -- and pronounces himself a new man. Tales of renewed focus, new energy -- whatever is needed to make the past the past -- spew forth. Miraculously, all is solved.

So it was Tuesday afternoon that, after a long workout that included staying late to run the bases alone, Felipe López sat at his locker and made his pledge.

"I just want to put last year behind me, and I already did," said López, a former all-star who is now fighting for a starting job with the Washington Nationals. "The one thing that hurt last year: I wasn't focused. Obviously, if you watched me, you knew that. I wasn't into baseball like I should be, like I am now."

This could be a simple story about a talented player shoving aside a poor season and moving on. With the Nationals' first spring training game set for Wednesday night in Jupiter against the Florida Marlins, López will board a bus with his teammates in the afternoon. Along for the ride will be Cristian Guzman, listed as the starting shortstop. Back at the Nationals' home base here, Ronnie Belliard -- listed as the starting second baseman -- will work out and wait to make his debut Friday. López will have to earn his way back into the starting lineup by beating out one of the two.

But because of the depths López reached -- both last year and much earlier in his life -- this must be treated more carefully. It is, in fact, a story very few in the Nationals' clubhouse know or understand.

"When I found out the difficult upbringing he had," said Barry Larkin, once a teammate in Cincinnati and now a member of the Nationals' front office, "I could understand why he went through some of the things that he did."

The rough outline of López's upbringing goes something like this: Born in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, he came to the mainland when he was 11 or 12 because his stepmother had leukemia, the disease that would kill her soon thereafter. His real mother? He last saw her when he was 3.

"My family, that stuff, they don't really talk about," he said. "You're curious, but no one really answered me."

Thus, his father, Felipe Sr., pushed his son through Little League in suburban Orlando, seemingly indistinguishable from other eager fathers and sons. Manny Acta, then a coach in the Houston Astros organization and now the Nationals' manager, used to hit ground balls to young Felipe, used to play softball with his father. "It was all baseball," Acta said.

Except behind the scenes. Felipe López Sr. was an abusive parent, both to his oldest son and his two younger siblings, a boy and a girl. Felipe had to move in with relatives. The problems persisted through high school, even as López developed into a star at Lake Brantley High in Altamonte Springs, Fla. There, he hit .521 as a senior and was named the state's player of the year.

In June 1998, the Toronto Blue Jays made López the eighth overall pick in the amateur draft. On Aug. 11, he signed for a $2 million bonus. Three days later, Felipe López Sr. was sentenced to 20 years in prison after pleading no contest to two counts of child abuse -- coercing a child into a sexual act by an adult -- and one count of aggravated assault, according to state records.

Felipe López Sr. remains in jail and is scheduled to be released in November 2009. Felipe López said he has not talked to his father since.

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