El Béisbolista

No one has lived through more of South Florida's baseball past than Vicente Lopez

His most significant victory that year, historically and personally, may have come on opening day, when Lopez was given the honor of christening Miami's new stadium. Built at the corner of NW 10th Avenue and 23rd Street in Allapattah, Miami Stadium was a gem of a ballpark. "I know of no more beautiful stadium in the country," declared major league Baseball Commissioner A.B. "Happy" Chandler. Certainly, its parquet floors in the clubhouse and an elevator that carried reporters up to the press box were not standard amenities in minor-league parks.

And on opening day, it had Vicente Lopez, pitching for the hometown team against the Havana Cubans. Lopez and the Sun Sox won 6-1. It was a big win, because, Lopez says, "the Cubans were the best team in that league."

In 1950, Lopez returned to South Florida for his second and, he hoped, last season with the Class B Sun Sox. If he pitched anywhere as well as he had in '49, the Dodgers would have to promote him. He did not dare dream aloud, but he could almost smell the pizza baking in Brooklyn.

A star is born: Vicente Lopez (front row, seated, fifth from left) as a rookie with Almendares; later, as a poster boy for Antonio Prío's Havana mayoral campaign
Vicente Lopez
A star is born: Vicente Lopez (front row, seated, fifth from left) as a rookie with Almendares; later, as a poster boy for Antonio Prío's Havana mayoral campaign
Seasons in the sun: Lopez had some great days at Havana's Gran Stadium
Bill Cooke
Seasons in the sun: Lopez had some great days at Havana's Gran Stadium

Opposing batters smelled only failure. Lopez tore through the Florida International League that season, winning twenty games and losing only six. Most impressive, however, was the manner in which he finished the campaign, pitching five successive shutouts, including three in the league playoffs to give Miami the championship. "I set two league records that year," beams Lopez, "17 consecutive victories and 46 scoreless innings in a row." The last two shutouts came against the Havana Cubans, perennial contenders and a team that, in the opinion of many, was only a notch below major-league caliber.

The Brooklyn Dodgers, who had lost the 1950 National League pennant to the Philadelphia Phillies by only two games and who had only two reliable starting pitchers in their rotation, took note. That winter, a month and a half into the Cuban League season, they notified Lopez that they wanted to see him pitch a particular Sunday game, against Cienfuegos and another ascending star in the Dodger system, Joe Black. "[Black and I] were both supposed to go to Dodger training camp the following spring," Lopez remembers.

It had been a meteoric rise. Less than three years earlier, he had pitched Central Hershey to a Cuban Amateur League title. Now, Lopez appeared to be on the brink of the major leagues, only a few months away from possibly joining countrymen like Conrado Marrero and Julio Moreno in the Show.

Almendares and Cienfuegos met December 17 at the Gran Stadium. Both Lopez and Black, a powerfully built, African-American fireballer, pitched as if the future depended upon it, because theirs did. Inning after inning, they matched each other, pitching brilliantly, forcing the opposition to scratch for runs, allowing one, then two, but no more. "I pitched ten innings," Lopez says with a mixture of pride and regret, "and left the game in a 2-2 tie." He had also, he realized, thrown out his arm. Brooklyn would have to wait. (Black would join the Dodgers the following year, in 1952, winning 15 games and leading Brooklyn to the World Series.)

In the spring of 1951, Lopez, then 24 years old, reported to Fort Worth, the Dodger affiliate in the Class AA Texas League. It was a promotion but not the one he'd wanted. Texas was not nearly as hospitable as South Florida, where at least some Cubans resided. "All I knew how to say in English were baseball phrases and how to ask for food," remembers Lopez, who, truth be told, never learned to say much more than that.

Early in the year, the Cuban pitcher thought his arm had healed completely. "I beat Dallas 6-0; then I beat San Antonio 8-0," he recalls, pulling box scores from his memory. "I had my velocity back. Everything was working." Until a game against Oklahoma City. "I was winning by something like 4-0 or 5-0 in the fourth inning, and then, all of a sudden, I couldn't reach home plate with my pitches." He shakes his head. "They had to take me out of the game. I didn't even qualify for the victory." He hadn't pitched enough innings.

To make it to the majors, a ballplayer, regardless of how much skill he possesses, also needs a little luck. Vicente Lopez's ran out that day in 1951. And he probably knew it even then. "Before I hurt my arm," he says more than 50 years later, reaching up instinctively toward his right shoulder with his left hand, "I was a competitive pitcher. I could be beaten, but I could also beat the best on any day."

No more. He stayed in baseball -- what else did he know to do? -- but not as a big-time prospect. Instead, he became a career minor-leaguer, bouncing from team to team, content simply to stay in the game and make a living. He returned to the Miami Sun Sox in 1952 and pitched solidly before being sent to Newport News, Virginia, later in the year. In 1953, he turned up in Mobile, Alabama, pitching briefly in the Southern Association, then with his hometown Havana Cubans. Somewhere along the way, the Dodgers cut him loose.

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