Lopes isn't the fastest Cub; Ryne Sandberg, 26, Bob Dernier, 28, and Shawon Dunston, 22, are quicker. But he leads the team in steals. He waits until the last moment before sliding. Says former Dodger teammate Steve Garvey, "He's an explosive slider. If you were to time him down to second, he'd probably rank with anyone and he still might be the fastest player into the bag over the last 10 feet."
In the Cub dugout Lopes holds forth as Professor Steal. He tells Dunston to study the pitchers. Lopes encourages Billy Hatcher to record observations in a little black book, and he coaches Dernier on getting a better jump. Not even last season's National League MVP is exempt from Lopes's tutelage. "I'm happy to listen," says Sandberg, who's second on the club with 41 steals.
Still, says Lopes, "You have to show you can do it before you have a right to say anything." By putting together a string of 34 straight steals over the past three seasons, and another streak of 16 consecutive this year, Lopes has reinforced his credibility. Those 527 career steals place him 11th on the modern-day list headed by Brock's 938, and he is third among active players behind Rickey Henderson (552) and Cesar Cedeno (544).
Lopes holds that base-stealing efficiency is more important than total steals. A great stealer, he says, shoots for a success rate of 80% or better. (The National League average is 69%.) In 1975, Lopes set baseball's consecutive-steal record of 38 straight. With a 92% success rate over the past three years, he is in fact getting better with age.
Not every base stealer swears by Lopes, however. "You can have a high percentage when you pick your pitches like he does," says St. Louis' Vince Coleman, who has a major league-leading 88 steals with 79% efficiency. "If I'm going to pick a pitch, I'll pick 2-2 or 3-2. But that's not my job. Everyone knows when I'm going." Earlier this year Lopes told Coleman that he doesn't like to see good base stealers sliding headfirst, as the Cards' Rookie-of-the-Year candidate so often does, because of the increased risk of injury.
"I don't have anything I need to learn," Coleman says.
Few Cub base runners seem to feel that way. "Davey can break a pitcher down in a heartbeat," says pinch hitter Thad Bosley. "It would be a shame if baseball lost that kind of mind."
To many, Lopes is still a Dodger in a Cub hat. For nine years he was part of L.A.'s classic infield that also included Ron Cey, Bill Russell and Garvey. When the Dodgers decided to break up that quartet, he was the first to go. "When he first came up, you couldn't get him to open up," says Cey, who has been with the Cubs since 1983. "Now you can't get him to shut up."
Bosley tells the story of the first time Lopes played in Dodger Stadium as a Cub, in July. "He was pumped," says Bosley. "Then, when they sat him the first three games, he was pumped and teed off. Before the fourth game, he told me and Sarge [ Gary Matthews] that he was going deep. Sure enough, in his first at bat, he jumped the yard."
Except when he's talking base stealing, Lopes is a quiet, private man, much at home with the moody sounds of rhythm and blues singer Luther Vandross. "I'm pretty much of a loner, and I like it that way," he says.