Wednesday, March 1, 2006


The Washington Nationals players lined up at home plate to display their baserunning skills yesterday for new first base coach Davey Lopes, who could teach a course in the subject.

If nothing else about the Nationals improves this season, their baserunning certainly will. It couldn’t get much worse.

The Nationals were the worst baserunning team in baseball last year. Acting as if base stealing were a crime is a bad trait for a team with a poor offense.

“We had the personnel last year. But [stealing bases] is a mind-set,” manager Frank Robinson said. “Do they want to run? Will they take the chance and try to steal a base? That’s what we have to instill in this ballclub this year before we go north. We have to make them more aggressive and understand situations and want to steal a base in the right situations.”

If Alfonso Soriano is on this team when the season opens and Brandon Watson makes the club as the center fielder and leadoff hitter, that’s about 50 more stolen bases. For a team that stole just 45 last year — last in the league — the addition of these two should mean more runs.

But they have to know how to do it right — after all, the Nationals’ pathetic total is magnified when you consider they led the league in times caught stealing, also 45. That’s where Professor Lopes, who was hired during the offseason in the overhaul of the coaching staff ordered by the front office, comes into play.

During his 16-year career with the Dodgers, Athletics, Cubs and Astros, Lopes stole 557 bases in 671 attempts, good for a career 83 percent success rate, seventh on the all-time list for players who have stolen 200 bases or more. He also led the National League in steals twice — 77 in 1975 and 63 the following year.

He did it better than most when he played, and he knows how to teach others, said Brady Anderson, who flourished as a basestealer in Baltimore when Lopes was a coach there from 1992 to 1994.

“It is hard for the first base coach to get into the action, but he was instrumental for me in the year that I stole 53 bases,” Anderson said. “He was unbelievable at watching pitchers and noticing the tiniest little things that I never would have noticed. He could pick that up and relay it to me quick enough so that I could use it during that time I was on first base. I wouldn’t even have to wait for the next time. He wouldn’t come in the dugout and say, ‘Hey, next time try this.’ When I was on first base, in between pitches he would say, ‘Hey, watch this.’

“He was also inspirational. One time a pitcher was trying to mess with me and kept throwing over to first base, trying to wear me out. Finally, Davey screamed at me, ‘This guy is messing with you. Don’t let him do that to you.’ I wasn’t going to steal, but then I got a surge of adrenaline and took off. When I got to second base, he was really fired up. Having him at first base was great.”

Professor Lopes goes to school on a regular basis, even after 39 seasons in baseball, to study pitchers.

“My job is that if I have video on that particular pitcher of that day, his last start or whatever, and watch him throw over to first, if I can read his move off the video, fine,” he said. “And once I get in the game, it doesn’t take me long, unless a guy has a real deceptive move, to figure out what he is doing. Once I do that, I can go up and relay very quickly to the guy in very simplistic language so that he can react by the next pitch or a couple of pitches later.”

Professor Lopes will be part of Robinson’s effort to change the mentality of the team toward baserunning in general.

“You set the tempo right from spring training that you are going to be aggressive, and Frank has said that, and I will keep reiterating that as long as it takes,” Lopes said. “When they get to first base, they need to be thinking one base ahead all of the time.”

It would seem what Lopes, who managed the Milwaukee Brewers from 2001 to 2003, has to offer would have been in demand. But after being let go as a coach by San Diego at the end of last season, no one else called.

“In all honesty, there wasn’t any other job,” he said. “This was the last opportunity that I had. I was thankful for the opportunity, make no mistake about it. But it was an eye opener for me. Usually you think after 30-some years in the big leagues, coaching, playing and managing, that you would have some reputation established. And I know the way that this business is. You stay out of the game a year or so, and it is tough getting back in. I look forward to the opportunity in Washington and see where it goes from here.”

In a way, this is full circle for Lopes and Frank Robinson. When Lopes was a rookie with the Dodgers in 1972, the first player to pinch hit for him was Robinson — who struck out.

“My brothers yelled from the stands, ‘He could have done that,’” Lopes said.

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To

submit a question, go to the Sports Page

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