— Luis Lopez
When Luis Lopez played his first professional baseball game, Bill Clinton was president, “Forrest Gump” had just beaten “Pulp Fiction” for best picture at the Academy Awards, and Derek Jeter was still a year away from his rookie season with the New York Yankees.
In less than two weeks, Lopez will put on a Bridgeport Bluefish uniform for the last time and play the final game of a 20-year career as a professional baseball player. “It’s pretty emotional,” Lopez said. “I mean, this is all I’ve known how to do the past 20 years, and this is all I worked on as a kid. I always wanted this opportunity to be a professional athlete.”
Since his first game in 1995, Lopez’s career has made stops all over the baseball world: He’s played at every level of the minor leagues, from independent rookie league ball in Ogden, Utah, to single-A in places like Hagerstown, Maryland, and AAA in Edmonton, Alberta, in Canada. He’s played professionally in Japan and Mexico.
For a few months in 2001 and a few weeks in 2004, Luis Lopez was in the big leagues, playing a total of 52 games for the Toronto Blue Jays and the Montréal Expos. “Way back when, I wasn’t drafted or nothing. I made it to the big leagues. And so every day I put on this uniform, I take pride,” Lopez said. “I always have that little bit of a chip on my shoulder. Everybody felt that I was too slow, I couldn’t hit with a wooden bat. And 20 years later, here I am still playing.”
In the team’s history since its founding in 1998, no one has played more games as a Bridgeport Bluefish than Luis Lopez.
For the younger players, like 24-year-old Bluefish pitcher Matt Iannazzo, Lopez's longevity is impressive all on its own. “To think about twenty seasons, it’s pretty incredible. Not only for his skills to last twenty seasons, but his body to last twenty seasons, and his desire to last twenty seasons,” Iannazzo, who is in his third season in the minors, said. “A lot [of the players] on this team have three, four, five, six years of experience, and sometimes all three of those things wane. And one of the most incredible parts about it is him keeping that desire, that fire… And the Bluefish keep asking him back.”
Lopez's team keeps asking him back, and his manager keeps penciling his name into the lineup. “Well, you want somebody who wants to play every day,” Bluefish manager Willie Upshaw said. “[You want] somebody who’s got the heart to play, the passion to play baseball every day—really the strength and the skills to play 140 games [a year].”
After playing in Bridgeport for the last seven seasons, mostly at first base and at third base, Lopez's strengths and skills are clearly marked in the stat books. He holds all-time Bluefish records in just about every offensive category there is: at bats, hits, extra-base hits, walks, doubles, runs batted in.
“It’s not easy,” Upshaw said. “[Lopez has] played a lot of seasons, and he knows how to get through a season.”
That may explain how Lopez holds one record here that’s bigger than offense. In the team’s history, since its founding in 1998, no one has played more games as a Bridgeport Bluefish than Luis Lopez.
And for a player averaging close to 140 games a year, the thought of a final game is a strange new eventuality to consider. “It’s kind of like a weird feeling to think about for the last time,” Lopez said, “coming out of the dugout, going to the on deck circle, hearing the walk-out song, hearing the crowd cheer for you as you get ready to hit, and then locking in on that battle with the pitcher, for that one last time.”
Lopez turns 41 in October, and after more than 2,200 games, almost 10,000 plate appearances, and nearly 2,500 hits in professional baseball, he says it’s time to put down his bat and relax.
“I’m ready to basically just work out to stay healthy, not preparing for a season,” Lopez said. “I still want to stay around the game, helping out, coaching and stuff like that, to enjoy teaching all this stuff that I’ve learned throughout these years. ’Cause I’ve gathered a lot of information along the way. But I'm probably gonna enjoy my time off.”
But if the Bluefish decided to ask their 41-year-old corner infielder back for one more season, would Lopez change his mind?
“You never know,” Lopez said. “I mean, I’m still going to be working out. [You] always got to leave the door open. [You] never know. All I know how to do is play baseball. It’s in my heart.”
The Bridgeport Bluefish play the last game of their 2014 season on Sunday, September 21, in Somerset, N.J.
It’ll be Luis Lopez’s last game as a player after 20 years in pro ball.
Correction: Willie Upshaw is in his ninth season as manager of the Bluefish, not his fifth as was originally reported in a photo caption on this story.