Nancy Lopez is seated in the dining car of a train speeding north from Georgia, her head swaying gently from side to side as if she had her eye on a ball that would not stop moving. She looks over at 2½ year-old Ashley, who may or may not be getting a cold from sleeping with her teddy bear after it fell into the toilet of their cramped compartment.
"Before I had children," says Lopez, "I didn't even like to sit in a car because I got wrinkled. I would always try to lean back with my legs straight out so my clothes would look nice when I got where I was going." She looks down at the shoulder upon which her other daughter, Erinn, born on May 26, has just dribbled something strange and indescribable. "Now I'm never clean."
Lopez is on the midnight train from Georgia because Erinn is still too young to fly. After a month at the family home in Albany, she is excited about seeing her husband, Ray Knight, third baseman for the New York Mets, and settling back into the routine of a baseball wife. The difference is that this particular baseball wife may also be the best woman golfer ever to tee it up, with 34 tour victories and career earnings of $1,643,379.
Knight, meanwhile, is hitting .279 with nine home runs this season and is playing a key role in the runaway success of the Mets. Together they have become one of the most celebrated sports couples in the history of sweat, equaling or surpassing the fame of Terry Bradshaw and Jo Jo Starbuck, John and Chris Evert Lloyd, Ralph Kiner and Nancy Chaffee, Lyudmila Belousova and Oleg Protopopov, Babe Didrikson and George Zaharias, or Jackie Jensen and Zoe Ann Olsen.
That Knight is descended from Cherokee Indians and Lopez from Mexicans means their families have been on this continent longer than just about anyone's. But this most all-American of marriages had its beginnings in Japan. Knight had gone to Japan in 1978 on a goodwill tour with the Cincinnati Reds, and Lopez was there to play in a tournament. That season had been an embarrassing one for Knight, who had batted just .200 for the Reds as a late-inning defensive replacement for Pete Rose. Lopez was at the tail end of her remarkable rookie season, the year in which she won an astonishing five tournaments in a row.
She and her future husband, Tim Melton, a sportscaster from Hershey, Pa., had gone to the Reds' ballgame and then stopped by the clubhouse, where Lopez was introduced to the players by Rose. Knight remembers that first meeting, although—typical of the kind of year he was having—he did not make much of a hit, surely not enough of one that Lopez can remember meeting him. "She didn't know me from Adam," Knight says.
More than the rest of us, athletes lead lives demarcated by their years—a good year or a bad year, but always a year with a weight and shape of its own. Babe Ruth may have been the first to acknowledge this important truth when, in 1931, he was asked if he thought it proper for him to be making more money than President Herbert Hoover. "Why not?" Ruth is said to have replied, "I had a better year than he did."
That was the kind of year Nancy Lopez had in 1979. She returned to the tour still radiant from the honeymoon with Melton, but her honeymoon with the galleries was just beginning. In one of the most dominating sports performances in half a century, she won 8 of the 19 tournaments she entered.
While his bride was on tour. Melton was settling into a new job at a Cincinnati television station and was unable to travel to most of her tournaments. Knight had gotten to know Melton better after seeing him again in Cincinnati, and the two of them had become good friends. Knight found Melton to be "one of the nicest people in the world," and it was just as well, because Knight was soon going to need all the friends he could get. The year after he met Nancy and Tim, Knight took over the third-base job that had belonged to Rose, who had elected to become a free agent and sign with Philadelphia. After six years in the minors and two as Rose's caddie, Knight was finally given his first chance to play every day in the majors, and he hit .318. It took some time for the fans in Cincinnati to warm up to him. "Even when I had replaced Pete at the end of games, their reaction to me had been pretty cold," Knight says. "I'd dive for a ball as it was going by, and somebody would yell, 'Pete Rose would have had it.' The fans looked at Pete as their own, so the pressure was obvious. I had to win them over."
Knight hadn't yet won Lopez over, either, his relationship with Melton's wife remaining cordial but distant for the time being. "Tim would always say such nice things about Ray, but we weren't really friends yet," Lopez recalls. "We just kind of admired each other." By that time Knight's five-year marriage had crumbled, as had his batting average. With the divorce he lost custody of his son, Brooks. Lopez was also beginning to feel a strain on her marriage.