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Lopez hoping to catch on as a backup with Braves
Former slugging star glad to be back in Atlanta
Atlanta Braves catcher Javy Lopez puts on his gear during a Major League Baseball spring training workout Friday in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. - photo by AP Photo/David J. Phillip

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Javy Lopez looks as though he never left.

"I've got my old locker, my old number," Lopez said Saturday, surveying his surroundings after the second workout of his second go-around with the Atlanta Braves. "You can't ask for anything better."

Of course, a lot has changed since Lopez last played for the Braves in 2003. Back then, he was a three-time All-Star catcher who had just put up the best season of his career: .328 with 43 homers and 109 RBIs.

He left for a big-money deal with the Baltimore Orioles, but never came close to matching what he did in Atlanta. In fact, after three seasons of steadily dwindling production, Lopez found himself out of a job last spring when he was cut by the Colorado Rockies.

His career appeared over.

"It was hard for me," Lopez conceded. "When you're watching TV, watching the games, you're like, 'I should have been there. I can't see I'm not out there.'"

He sat out the entire season, "doing the things I haven't done in 20 years." He traveled extensively with his family, visiting Mexico, Las Vegas, California and Puerto Rico. He became a Little League dad, cheering on his 12- and 8-year-old sons.

But Lopez never lost his desire to get back on the field. He began working with a personal trainer last August. He stayed in touch with the Braves, especially good friend and former catching mate Eddie Perez, now the team's bullpen coach.

Perez is the one who set up Lopez with another of the team's coaches, Chino Cadahia, for twice- and three-times-a-week workouts at a metro Atlanta high school, mainly to work on Lopez's suspect defense.

Impressed with his work ethic, Cadahia sent word to the front office: Hey, this guy might be worth taking a chance on. The Braves signed the 37-year-old Lopez to a minor-league deal, inviting him to camp as a non-roster player to compete for a backup job behind up-and-coming star Brian McCann.

Lopez is perfectly content to take on a reduced role.

"I'm happier than ever," he said. "I'm going to be a backup-slash-coach."

There are no guarantees, of course. Lopez is battling for the No. 2 job against two much-younger players, 26-year-old Brayan Pena and 24-year-old Clint Sammons. The Braves will keep the player who's most capable of filling in for McCann every fourth or fifth day.

"It's not like Javy just walked into camp," manager Bobby Cox said. "He's been working all winter. He never stopped. But it may take him a little bit of time to get back into it."

Lopez knows this will be a much different job than the one he had before.

"I have to prepare mentally on how to do that role," he said. "Being a backup catcher is not as easy as being the starting catcher. Playing every day kind of gets you ready automatically. When you don't play every day, you have to make yourself get ready. You have to make sure your body is ready for game time. The last thing you want to do is come out of the (bullpen) cold and not ready, then go into the game and do a pretty bad job."

In his prime, Lopez was an offensive force who never seemed to spend much time worrying about his catching skills or handling pitchers. He had five seasons with 20-plus homers and twice reached 100 RBIs.

Greg Maddux, a real student in the art of pitching, usually was paired with the backup catcher - whoever that was - during his 11 years with the Braves. While Cox insisted the arrangement had nothing to do with Lopez, it was long suspected that Maddux preferred to work with someone a little more devoted to his work behind the plate.

"He said he wasted the last three years of his career," Perez said. "So he's working on his catching, which is something that he never did before."

During his sessions with Cadahia, Lopez focused on smoothing out his footwork, improving his setup behind the plate, and becoming more accurate on throws to second. Now that he's at spring training, he'll add blocking pitches to his regimen, the sort of down-and-dirty duties he's now eager to tackle.

Asked if he has any regrets about leaving the Braves, Lopez is quick to remind everyone that it wasn't his choice. Atlanta had already traded for his heir apparent, Johnny Estrada, and made no effort to re-sign their star catcher after his career season.

"I wasn't going to beg them and say, 'Please give me a contract,'" Lopez said.

He never fit in with the Orioles - specifically pointing a finger at owner Peter Angelos, believing he instilled a tone of fear that seeped into the clubhouse and made it difficult for anyone to succeed.

"Every time I would go to that ballpark, I would compare the Braves to the Orioles," Lopez said, moving his hands up and down like a scale. "It was not even close. I really missed the way this organization worked."

Now he's got a chance to go out on his terms, with the team he came up with and spent most of his career.

"If you're going to quit," Lopez said, "it's better to quit while you're working hard."

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