- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 22, 2004

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Javy Lopez walked from locker to locker yesterday, shaking hands and exchanging small talk with people who until recently were nothing more than a bunch of strangers.

Now they’re his teammates.

After spending 12 years in Atlanta, Lopez signed a $22.5million, three-year deal with the Baltimore Orioles in December. Before his first workout, Lopez eased into his new surroundings by working his way around the clubhouse.

“This is the weird part, something I never experienced my whole career,” he said. “It’s not like coming into the clubhouse and shaking hands with the same people every year. In Atlanta, whoever was new, they would come up to me and introduce themselves. Here, I’m the one who has to go to every locker. It’s fun — and it’s different.”

Handling a new pitching staff is easy compared to learning the names of a few dozen unfamiliar faces. In his final few seasons with the Braves, Lopez had to break in plenty of pitchers.

“It’s no different than when I was in Atlanta. There, basically they had a brand new staff. The only pitcher there for a long time that I knew very well was Tom Glavine, and he got traded,” Lopez said.

Actually, Glavine signed as a free agent with the New York Mets before last season. And Greg Maddux was in Atlanta for years, too. But the right-hander did not have much success throwing to Lopez and insisted on pitching to the Braves’ backup catcher after the 1998 season.

The ace of the Orioles’ staff, however, can’t wait to begin working with Lopez. Sidney Ponson is excited about all the offense his catcher can provide — he set career highs in 2003 by hitting .328 with 43 homers and 109 RBI — but Ponson is most impressed by the way Lopez controls a game.

“He’s been in the playoffs and caught a lot of great pitchers before,” Ponson said. “He might see something that I don’t see and come out there and tell me about it. He looks at those things.”

That’s what spring training is all about.

“All I have to do is know their best pitch, what kind of velocity they have and how the ball moves from them. That’s basically it,” Lopez said. “I’ll probably get to know that before the spring training games start.”

In the interest of blending in and getting along with the staff, Lopez will allow the pitchers to overrule his signals at the outset. But it is an entitlement that comes with no guarantees.

“In my first year, I just want them to feel comfortable with me,” Lopez said. “If they want to throw a curve when I call a fastball, I’ll let them do whatever they want. If it doesn’t work, the next time I’ll remind them.”

Yesterday a handshake and a bit of pitch-and-catch represented the beginning of a new relationship between a catcher and the pitching staff. That bond will solidify incrementally as Opening Day draws closer.

“You have to get used to each other. It’s going to take a couple times catching me for him to know what I like to do,” Ponson said. “I know he can hit, but I’m more concerned about getting on the same page with him pitching and catching.”

The Orioles are confident that will happen, which is why they were delighted to sign Lopez instead of free agent Ivan Rodriguez. In exchange for $22.5million, Baltimore expects Lopez to provide offense, defense and leadership in the clubhouse.

“He’s valuable not only as a catcher running the ballgame,” manager Lee Mazzilli said, “but in knowing how to win.”

Note — By virtue of his impressive showing yesterday, closer Jorge Julio proved there’s nothing wrong with his right shoulder. Julio was shut down by his Venezuelan team in December because of a sore shoulder, but that is no longer a concern of his — or the Orioles — after he threw hard during practice.

“Julio looked good out there,” Mazzilli said. “It looked like he was throwing 95 mph right away. I’m encouraged to learn his arm isn’t bothering him.” Julio confirmed that before practice. “Everything is good,” he said, noting that an MRI on the shoulder earlier this month revealed no damage.

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