For a while, you would have thought Davey Lopes was slipping. In Los Angeles, where for nine years he had owned second base in one of the finest infields ever, he was unseated by youth—Steve Sax, then 22. A couple of seasons after the Dodgers had traded Lopes to Oakland in 1982, Joe Morgan, 2½ years his elder, waltzed in and claimed his job. Even the fans were passing Lopes by, not noticing him in supermarkets.
"That didn't sit well with me," says Lopes, who at 39 is one of baseball's most successful (84%) and prolific base stealers, with 527 career thefts. "I kinda lost the desire to run. I fell into a rut and started believing that when you reach a certain age, you're not supposed to run. It was almost like I was dead."
But if you have great legs, eventually you'll come back. Tina Turner and Ann Miller did. And so did Lopes, after being traded to the Chicago Cubs a year ago.
With 44 stolen bases in 47 attempts so far this season, he has become the best old base stealer in history. "I came over here and now they want me to create something, to get things going," he says. "Everyone likes to feel wanted. It's almost as if I'm back in L.A. I feel like I'm 26 or 27 again."
The alltime leader, Lou Brock, stole only 17 bases at 39; Ty Cobb had a paltry 13 at that age. Lopes's closest competitor among 39-year-olds is William (Dummy) Hoy of the White Sox, who stole 27 bases in 1901. Lopes could double that this season, despite not having played every day.
"Whatever preconceived notion we had about the guy was dispelled early," says Cubs manager Jim Frey. "With Davey, you can't qualify any statement with, 'for a guy who's 39.' He's just good, period." You can't call him "just a base stealer," either. He also has a .282 batting average, 39 RBIs and 10 home runs and has made only one error in 88 games at four positions.
"Most guys get heavier," says Cubs third-base coach Don Zimmer, a former infielder who did. "They lose their reflexes. Davey can still hit a fastball. It's a shame we're having the year we are. What he's put together for the Chicago Cubs is amazing."
Cubs outfielder Brian Dayett calls his oldest teammate "Pops," although Lopes has a teenager's 32-inch waist and 7.2% body fat. At 5'9" and 173 pounds, Lopes is almost as trim as he was when he broke into the majors at 26. "I didn't smoke, drink or do drugs, and believe me, this job can drive you to it," he says.
Lopes never touched weights, either. Instead, eight years ago he adopted a program to minimize loss of speed. He does sprints, agility drills and rope jumping—but only moderate jogging. "Jogging shortens up your muscles," Lopes says. Three weeks off a year is all he allows himself.
Still, Lopes isn't a total health nut. "Diet is my big deficiency," he says. Before a game with the Braves in late August, he ate a plate of scrambled eggs and a big steak and drank three cups of coffee as he discussed the art of base stealing. "I could talk for hours about stealing," he says. "It's one part of this game that is sorely neglected."
Lopes isn't the fastest Cub; Ryne Sandberg, 26, Bob Dernier, 28, and Shawon Dunston, 22, are quicker. But he leads the team in steals. He waits until the last moment before sliding. Says former Dodger teammate Steve Garvey, "He's an explosive slider. If you were to time him down to second, he'd probably rank with anyone and he still might be the fastest player into the bag over the last 10 feet."
In the Cub dugout Lopes holds forth as Professor Steal. He tells Dunston to study the pitchers. Lopes encourages Billy Hatcher to record observations in a little black book, and he coaches Dernier on getting a better jump. Not even last season's National League MVP is exempt from Lopes's tutelage. "I'm happy to listen," says Sandberg, who's second on the club with 41 steals.
Still, says Lopes, "You have to show you can do it before you have a right to say anything." By putting together a string of 34 straight steals over the past three seasons, and another streak of 16 consecutive this year, Lopes has reinforced his credibility. Those 527 career steals place him 11th on the modern-day list headed by Brock's 938, and he is third among active players behind Rickey Henderson (552) and Cesar Cedeno (544).
Lopes holds that base-stealing efficiency is more important than total steals. A great stealer, he says, shoots for a success rate of 80% or better. (The National League average is 69%.) In 1975, Lopes set baseball's consecutive-steal record of 38 straight. With a 92% success rate over the past three years, he is in fact getting better with age.
Not every base stealer swears by Lopes, however. "You can have a high percentage when you pick your pitches like he does," says St. Louis' Vince Coleman, who has a major league-leading 88 steals with 79% efficiency. "If I'm going to pick a pitch, I'll pick 2-2 or 3-2. But that's not my job. Everyone knows when I'm going." Earlier this year Lopes told Coleman that he doesn't like to see good base stealers sliding headfirst, as the Cards' Rookie-of-the-Year candidate so often does, because of the increased risk of injury.
"I don't have anything I need to learn," Coleman says.
Few Cub base runners seem to feel that way. "Davey can break a pitcher down in a heartbeat," says pinch hitter Thad Bosley. "It would be a shame if baseball lost that kind of mind."
To many, Lopes is still a Dodger in a Cub hat. For nine years he was part of L.A.'s classic infield that also included Ron Cey, Bill Russell and Garvey. When the Dodgers decided to break up that quartet, he was the first to go. "When he first came up, you couldn't get him to open up," says Cey, who has been with the Cubs since 1983. "Now you can't get him to shut up."
Bosley tells the story of the first time Lopes played in Dodger Stadium as a Cub, in July. "He was pumped," says Bosley. "Then, when they sat him the first three games, he was pumped and teed off. Before the fourth game, he told me and Sarge [Gary Matthews] that he was going deep. Sure enough, in his first at bat, he jumped the yard."
Except when he's talking base stealing, Lopes is a quiet, private man, much at home with the moody sounds of rhythm and blues singer Luther Vandross. "I'm pretty much of a loner, and I like it that way," he says.
The Chicago fans like him that way, too. All over the city, even in supermarkets, he gets stopped, most often by middle-aged men who look like Don Zimmer. "Life begins at 40," they say, and of course Lopes agrees. "I have a whole new following," he says. "It's like I'm a symbol."