The lounge is invariably the noisiest room at the club. There are, however, times when the room falls silent.
These times do not arrive on any schedule nor can they be planned. They just have to happen. When they do, it’s absolute unadulterated magic.
No performers were on the stage. Conversation had died down. Currie and Emsworth were no longer darting between tables taking and delivering orders. Baxter had stopped clinking glasses and bottles behind the bar. Sarah Miller was even refraining from spilling or breaking anything. All the attention in the room was focused on Lopez holding court on his barstool, regaling a receptive audience with stories of his days wearing a catcher’s mask for the Atlanta Braves.
I relish these occasions. Seated a couple of stools away from Lopez, with Carrie on my right, I surveyed the room, pleased to see so many people enjoying themselves. Scott Wilson, Tripp and Jennifer Warren, Maree Jones, Lee Ann and Billy Brown, Andre Natta, Autumn Smith, Deon Gordon, Britton Lynn, Andrew Sims, Krista Conlin, Jack and Brittiny Russell, E.J. Vernon, Alicia Rohan, Billie Dupree, Rickey White, and Carl Carter were among the Magic City notables on hand that night.
“Who was my favorite pitcher to catch?” Lopez echoed a question from Andre. “Probably Maddux. Games would go so fast when he was pitching. Glavine was easy to catch — he had tremendous control — but his games would last three or four hours. Two-and-a-half hours is a good game for a catcher.”
“Who was the hardest to catch?” Deon asked.
“Rocker,” the personable three-time All-Star answered. “When he was in control, it was fun because he was hard to hit. But when he was wild, it was tough. A 100-mile-per-hour fastball in the dirt is hard to catch.”
It was a gas hearing Lopez toss around names I hadn’t thought about in years. Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Rocker were part of a killer pitching roster that was a lot of fun to watch. Steve Avery, Alejandro Pena, John Smoltz, Kent Mercker, and Randy St. Claire were also part of that group, starting in 1991, when the Braves began their steak of 14 straight division titles and made their first World Series appearance since moving to Atlanta. The year before, they’d had the worst record in the National League, and nobody would’ve dreamed they’d be playing the Minnesota Twins in the Fall Classic a season later.
“I remember being in Atlanta in the early ‘90s,” I said to Lopez. “The economy was booming, the city was getting ready to host the Olympics, the Braves were winning for the first time in years, and it was a really exciting time to be in Atlanta. Do you remember it that way, too?”
“Oh, yeah. When I came up to the big leagues in ’92, the city was already on fire. The place was pumped up. Everybody was excited about the Braves going from worst to first. I got called up into that and went straight to the World Series, which was an amazing experience. A lot of guys play their whole careers and never make it to the playoffs, so it was hard to believe I was suddenly in the majors and right away on my way to the World Series.”
Lopez was called up from the minors to fill in for Greg Olson, who suffered a broken leg during a game against Houston late in the 1992 season. The Braves keel-hauled Pittsburgh to advance to the World Series, which they lost to Toronto, four games to two. It would be three more seasons before Atlanta finally won a World Series.
“You caught a no-hitter once, didn’t you?” Tripp asked, having resigned himself to the fact that Lopez preferred to talk about his years with the Braves rather than the Red Sox.
“I did. Kent Mercker against the Dodgers in 1994. You know, you don’t realize how important something like that is until the game is over. I remember I was 0-4 and had struck out three times. I was so furious that I was struggling offensively that I didn’t realize what was happening on defense. In the seventh inning, I realized, ‘Wait a second. There’s something going on here.’ I had one more time at bat, and I hit a fly ball, but I didn’t even care any more. All I was worried about at that point was getting the no-hitter done.”
“That’s really interesting,” Jennifer said. “You always hear about no-hitters from the pitcher’s perspective.”
“Well, the pitcher throws the ball, but the catcher still has a lot to do with it, and it was nice to feel like I was a part of something like that.”
“What do you miss most about playing?” Autumn asked.
Lopez didn’t hesitate. “Everything. I really miss being in the Atlanta organization. I played there for 11 years, not counting six in the minors. It becomes a family to you, and it feels good when you’re with an organization like that where you really fit in. I felt that way about playing for the Braves, and I miss that.”
He may no longer be on the roster, but Lopez still remains an active part of the Braves organization, and, while he closed the lounge that night, there are plenty of good old baseball stories in his book that he didn’t tell at The Cobalt Club. Find out more about it here.