For much of Darrol Lopez's life, every day has been Old-Timers' Day. That's the way it is when your father is a well-known former Yankee who was an eyewitness to baseball history as part of the franchise's last pre-Steinbrenner dynasty, which produced five consecutive pennants and two world championships from 1960-64.
Hector Lopez, jovial of spirit and sharp of mind at 81, returned to Long Island this week. He visited his son Darrol, the highly successful Malverne High School basketball coach, who lives in the same nicely landscaped West Hempstead home that Hector owned for more than two decades after his Yankees career.
On Thursday, Hector Lopez sat in a comfortable leather chair and gleefully reminisced for his 46-year-old son, who never saw his father play in the major leagues, and a Newsday reporter who had watched Hector play many times on television during those bygone glory days.
Hector is living proof of the way baseball can wonderfully turn back the clock, and Darrol clearly loves those distant replays. The old Yankees have been part of his life since he was a young boy. From past Old-Timers' Day celebrations and frequent spring training visits during the years when Hector coached the Yankees' rookie league team in Tampa, near where he currently resides, Darrol has heard the Bronx tales and Bronx cheers before. They still stir his soul.
"That's the greatest feeling as a son, to see your dad out there get the ovation and you hear his name being announced," Darrol said. "When they announce, 'No. 11, Hector Lopez,' I still get goose bumps."
Hector laughed loudly and frequently as he recalled the highs and lows of a career in which he hit well but fielded shakily. He spent four seasons with the lowly Athletics before a trade to the Yankees early in the 1959 season. That year, although the Yankees failed to win the pennant for only the second time in the last 11 seasons, Lopez was a rare bright spot, hitting .283 with 16 homers and 69 RBIs in 112 games for the Yankees and finishing with a career-high 93 RBIs for the season.
"I was very surprised but happy because my mother lived in Brooklyn," Hector said of being dealt to the Yankees along with Ralph Terry for Johnny Kucks, Jerry Lumpe and Tom Sturdivant. "They got me to play third base. They had Andy Carey there, but they needed a little more punch."
The Yankees delivered a haymaker to the rest of the American League the following offseason, obtaining Lopez's former teammate, Roger Maris, from the A's as part of a seven-player deal. "He was a very good defensive player but just an average hitter in Kansas City," Lopez said. "It all came together for him when he got to New York."
With Maris and Mickey Mantle leading the way, and Lopez starting in leftfield after being moved by manager Casey Stengel after some infield misadventures, the Yankees returned to the World Series in 1960. Lopez, like many Yankees and their fans, was stunned when the Pirates' Bill Mazeroski hit a Series-ending walk-off homer in Game 7. "My biggest memory of that Series was the big bad hop on a ball that hit [shortstop] Tony Kubek in the throat," Lopez said. "That opened the floodgates for them. It wasn't a good loss."
His second appearance in the Fall Classic had a much happier ending. In 1961, with Yogi Berra and Mantle injured, Lopez drove in seven runs in the final two games, including a three-run homer plus two other RBIs in the clinching Game 5 against the Reds. "That was a big deal for me because I didn't have a very good season,'' said Lopez, who batted .222.
But a couple of Yankees teammates had historic seasons in '61. It was the year of the M&M Boys as Maris and Mantle chased Babe Ruth's then-record 60 homers in a season. Maris finished with 61 and Mantle 54.
"Everybody wanted Mickey Mantle to hit 65 home runs," Lopez said. "He got hurt and didn't play for about two weeks or they might both have hit 60-something home runs. Everybody wanted Mantle to break that record. I think it's because Mantle was 'a Yankee' and Maris was considered an outsider. The reporters wouldn't give him a break. They were on Mantle's side. Roger was losing his hair from the pressure."
Lopez still wears his 1961 World Series ring. His wife wears the one Hector earned in 1962, when the Yankees outlasted the Giants on Terry's 1-0 gem in Game 7. Lopez was a starter for the last time in 1963, mainly because of injuries to Mantle and Maris, and hit 14 homers in 130 games. The Yankees lost the Series in '63 and '64 and Lopez retired after the '66 season, sticking around long enough to see the Yankees sink to last place.
A happy-go-lucky baseball lifer, Lopez coached or managed until 2008, and returned for a cameo as Panama's manager in the 2009 World Baseball Classic. He had a chance to briefly mentor several key members of the Yankees' latest dynasty, including Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Bernie Williams. "I didn't have much to do with them," he said with a modest smile, "because they didn't stay down there too long. They moved right through the system. But they had the tools."
From the M&M Boys to the Core Four, it's been quite a ride through Yankees history for Hector Lopez. Darrol is only too happy to have joined the journey in progress. "When I was younger, parents of friends I went to school with would say, "You're Hector Lopez's son? I saw your dad play. He was a great player,' " said Darrol, who wears a 1998 World Series ring awarded to Hector for being a manager in the Yankees' farm system that year. "Then I started seeing shows on TV about what my father had done and the great teams that he played on. When I got older, I never missed Old-Timers' Day. I realized that my father was something special."