I got very lucky as a kid growing up in Springfield, Illinois. There were a few reasons for this, but one that I didn’t fully appreciate at the time was that a smallish city of 100,000 souls somehow had a triple-A baseball team. It was a quirk of fate, really, but I didn’t know anything about that back then. I appreciate it now, though.
The team was called the New Orleans Pelicans in 1977, and was owned by a man named A. Ray Smith. Smith had his team playing in the New Orleans Superdome, which I have to imagine had an infinite seating capacity for a minor-league team. But he wanted more, and for some reason he thought he could find it in a town nestled in between Chicago and St. Louis. And so, just before I turned ten years old, the Pelicans migrated north and became the Springfield Redbirds.
The first season that the Redbirds were in town, one of the team’s pitchers was named Aurelio Lopez. I didn’t know his back story then, but he was the MVP of the Mexican baseball league the previous year, while the Pelicans were playing in New Orleans. His services were then purchased by the St. Louis Cardinals, who sent him to Springfield for a couple of months and then called him up to the majors.
Anything having to do with Mexico seemed strange and exotic back in the 1970s, and Lopez fit that bill. But before too long, he was gone, among the first of a raft of big leaguers I was able to see back then. For them, Springfield was just a stepping stone for bigger and better things. It’s been that for me, as well.
After the 1978 season ended, Lopez was traded to the Detroit Tigers. He stayed with the Tigers for many seasons in the 1980s, where he was dubbed “Senor Smoke” by Tigers fans. He missed out on the Cardinals’ World Series teams of the 1980s, but he won a championship with Detroit in 1984. And to this day, I’m sure some people still remember “Senor Smoke” with great affection. It’s a great nickname, after all.
After Lopez retired from the game in 1987, following a couple of seasons with the Houston Astros, he returned to his hometown of Tecamachalco, Mexico. He was elected the mayor of the town, which is located in east-central Mexico. He was likely the most well-known figure in the town, and life had to be pretty good for him, at least until it literally came crashing to a halt. On the day after his 44th birthday, he was killed when the car he was driving overturned. As I have said many time in this space, life is indeed short.
Yesterday was the day after my own 44th birthday. I thought about Aurelio Lopez, and how he must have seen and done things in his life that I can only imagine. Perhaps the only way that my life exceeds his is in longevity. But in the end, that’s really the most important metric, isn’t it?