BRIDGEPORT -- A few days after the end of the 2001 season, Toronto Blue Jays manager Buck Martinez called Luis Lopez into his office and said the words every major-league rookie wants to hear: I want you back next season.
Martinez liked Lopez, who had become a solid bench player, appearing in 41 games. Martinez liked his bat, he liked Lopez's glove at third and first base. Most of all, he liked his attitude. And going into 2002, Martinez wanted Lopez on his team. So, Lopez went to winter ball and worked harder than he'd ever worked before.
Little did he know what was going to happen.
In November, Toronto general manager Gord Ash was fired. The Blue Jays, who had been sold after the 2000 season to Rogers Communications, hired J.P. Ricciardi and told him to cut the payroll. As part of that, Ricciardi traded reliever Billy Koch to Oakland for third baseman Eric Hinske. Lopez was released, eventually being picked up by Oakland and assigned to Class AAA Sacramento.
He would not play on a major-league field again for three years.
And when he did, it was just for 11 games.
Lopez has been trying to get back ever since.
He is 38 now and a veteran of 17 seasons of professional baseball. Thursday night at the Ballpark at Harbor Yard, he began his fifth season with the Bridgeport Bluefish, starting at third base and hoping that by playing well here, he might open the eyes of an affiliated organization that could use a good-fielding, solid-hitting utility player for the stretch run.
"That fire's still there. I still feel I can produce," Lopez said, sitting in the dugout during the Bluefish's media day on Wednesday. "I feel great. I still keep myself in shape, I've been working out since last October and you just never know. A team might need a guy off the bench.
"I still feel I can be a pinch hitter for a team in the big leagues. I know I have the experience, I know I can do the job off the bench, I've done it before. You never know, a team might just be crazy enough to give an old guy a chance."
Last season in Bridgeport, Lopez played in 121 games, batting .267 with 10 home runs and 67 RBIs. Overall with the Bluefish, Lopez has a .288 average, 29 homers, 276 RBIs and 543 hits. He finished No. 2 in the top 15 Bluefish voting -- according to fans and front office employees -- as part of the team's celebration during its 15th season.
"He's a perfect guy, the senior citizen, to have on our club," manager Willie Upshaw said. "He's not a fast runner but he's a terrific hitter. In the clubhouse, he teaches guys just by talking to them. He catches everything that's hit at him. His arm is still solid and he still loves the game. I like him."
Last season, both Upshaw and general manager Bob Goughan wondered just how much was left in Lopez's tank. They signed Eric Munson, who had played in the majors with Detroit, Tampa Bay, Houston and Oakland to try to eventually replace Lopez.
Munson lasted just 19 games.
"We tried to run (Lopez) off last year and he knew we were trying to run him off last year," Goughan said. "We brought in Eric Munson and he ran Munson off. And I'll say this ... Luis Lopez made the Atlantic League all-star team. Case closed."
It was the seventh time that Lopez was named an All-Star in his career, which has seen him play in both independent and affiliated baseball as well as Mexico and Japan. During those 17 seasons, he has won six Most Valuable Player awards, recorded over 2,000 career minor-league hits, knocked in over 1,000 runs and scored 1,000 runs.
And there seems to be plenty left in the tank.
He laments the fact that Martinez never got another managerial job after he was fired in 2002. Lopez feels that he would have gotten another chance in the majors had Martinez gotten hired somewhere else.
"Martinez liked how I played the game. He told me I was a major leaguer," Lopez said. "It's always about a manager liking you."
That's why Lopez thinks that if he can put up some serious numbers over the first couple of months in Bridgeport, there's a chance that a major league team might come calling.
"I think there are a couple of managers out there that would like my style and maybe give me a chance," he said. "I think (Boston's) Bobby Valentine would give me a chance. I think I'm his kind of player, a guy coming off the bench, a backup on the corners, whatever. (Miami Marlins manager) Ozzie Guillen, I think he's another guy. We'll see what happens."