Soriano's playful teasing helps Lopez learn ropes
Converted catcher adjusting to life at new position in Major League camp
MESA, Ariz. -- Rafael Lopez knows his days in the Cubs' big league camp are numbered. Alfonso Soriano reminds him almost daily.
It's not that Lopez is vying for Soriano's job in left field. Lopez, 25, has not played above Class A Daytona, and he's a converted catcher. More on that later. Soriano, 37, is entering his 13th season and has played in two World Series.
Lopez, though, was a pretty good bunter for one day and beat Soriano in the first round of the Cubs tournament.
"I told him, 'If you beat me in the bunt tournament, I'll give you a week until I send you down,'" Soriano said. "Now I tell him, 'You have two or three days in the big league show.'"
That was last Friday, and Lopez hasn't gotten a tap on his shoulder yet.
"[Soriano's] been teasing me about it -- it was 'fun love,'" Lopez said. "They've given me a hard time, but all out of love."
Soriano was joking. That's part of the rites of Spring Training.
"Most of the young guys, when they come to the big league camp, they feel a little nervous and a little panic," Soriano said. "I try to give them a little confidence. I'm a veteran, I'm trying to make him feel relaxed. A lot of people feel being in the big league camp is something big and they might be nervous. My job is to try to make everybody comfortable here. That's why I like to joke with everybody who's part of the team and have fun."
Lopez has a lot of things to get adjusted to. The same day he beat Soriano, he caught Kyuji Fujikawa in an intrasquad game. Interpreter Ryo Shinkawa went to the mound to help Lopez, who is from Philadelphia and doesn't speak any Japanese, and Fujikawa go over the signs. The two spent about 10 minutes in the clubhouse after the game so Lopez knew what the pitcher wanted.
Catching is still very new to Lopez. He was an infielder until the middle of his junior year at Florida State.
In 2010, as he was headed back to his apartment after a biology class, he got a call from the baseball coach. They wanted him to catch, and they wanted him to test it out right now. He was wearing khaki shorts and a polo shirt, a little dazed when they first suggested he convert from the infield.
"I laughed at them," Lopez said. "Then they took me into the batting cage in street clothes. I was between classes and they gave me a mask and put me behind the plate. They put the [pitching] machine on, ran me through a couple drills. They took my infielder's glove and threw it in the trash and said, 'This is how you're going to make your money.'"
Apparently, that's how the Giants' Buster Posey also converted to catching. Lopez and Posey's brother were teammates.
Lopez didn't get a say. This was an ultimatum.
"It was pretty much either don't play or play," he said. "They said if you can transition and you're any good at it, you'll play. If not, you're not going to be our starting second baseman. I was like, 'All right, I'll give it a try.'"
He then went through a crash course in catching. Lopez is a good student. The Cubs selected him in the 16th round of the 2011 First-Year Player Draft, and he has compiled a .297 average in two Minor League seasons. If he weren't a catcher, would he be in a big league Spring Training clubhouse now?
"No, not one chance," he said. "I was a decent infielder but I wasn't that good. I wasn't fast enough. For a catcher, I'm fast, for an infielder, I'm slow."
So, while Soriano keeps teasing Lopez about how many days until his demotion -- Cubs manager Dale Sveum expects the first cuts to be March 10 -- he keeps working with the catchers. Lopez did find a new infielder's glove.
"There were times in college when an infielder got hurt and they put me at third base," he said. "In college, they haven't hesitated to throw me back into the infield. I still take grounders for fun."
The Cubs have had catchers convert to pitchers -- Carlos Marmol and Randy Wells are examples -- and both Welington Castillo and Steve Clevenger were former infielders switched to catchers. Still, it's pretty crazy to go from a lecture on biology to putting on a catcher's mask for the first time and now being in Spring Training.
"I didn't really fight it," Lopez said about catching. "I didn't really have a choice. It was either do it, or don't play."
When Soriano first joined the Yankees in 1999, players like Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams and Mariano Rivera played the same pranks on him.
"I used to be young, and my dream was to go to the big leagues," Soriano said. "When I got close, I was next to those guys who I never thought I'd play with, guys like Mariano and Jeter. As soon as those guys talked to me and gave me confidence, I said to myself, 'Those guys are normal people.' When I saw them before, they were like heroes, super guys. When they talked to me and gave me confidence, I felt like I was in the same group."
Right now, Lopez is one of the guys.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.