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For a while, you would have thought Davey Lopes was slipping. In Los Angeles, where for nine years he had owned second base in one of the finest infields ever, he was unseated by youth—Steve Sax, then 22. A couple of seasons after the Dodgers had traded Lopes to Oakland in 1982, Joe Morgan, 2� years his elder, waltzed in and claimed his job. Even the fans were passing Lopes by, not noticing him in supermarkets.
"That didn't sit well with me," says Lopes, who at 39 is one of baseball's most successful (84%) and prolific base stealers, with 527 career thefts. "I kinda lost the desire to run. I fell into a rut and started believing that when you reach a certain age, you're not supposed to run. It was almost like I was dead."
With 44 stolen bases in 47 attempts so far this season, he has become the best old base stealer in history. "I came over here and now they want me to create something, to get things going," he says. "Everyone likes to feel wanted. It's almost as if I'm back in L.A. I feel like I'm 26 or 27 again."
The alltime leader, Lou Brock, stole only 17 bases at 39; Ty Cobb had a paltry 13 at that age. Lopes's closest competitor among 39-year-olds is William (Dummy) Hoy of the White Sox, who stole 27 bases in 1901. Lopes could double that this season, despite not having played every day.
"Whatever preconceived notion we had about the guy was dispelled early," says Cubs manager Jim Frey. "With Davey, you can't qualify any statement with, 'for a guy who's 39.' He's just good, period." You can't call him "just a base stealer," either. He also has a .282 batting average, 39 RBIs and 10 home runs and has made only one error in 88 games at four positions.
"Most guys get heavier," says Cubs third-base coach Don Zimmer, a former infielder who did. "They lose their reflexes. Davey can still hit a fastball. It's a shame we're having the year we are. What he's put together for the Chicago Cubs is amazing."
Cubs outfielder Brian Dayett calls his oldest teammate "Pops," although Lopes has a teenager's 32-inch waist and 7.2% body fat. At 5'9" and 173 pounds, Lopes is almost as trim as he was when he broke into the majors at 26. "I didn't smoke, drink or do drugs, and believe me, this job can drive you to it," he says.
Lopes never touched weights, either. Instead, eight years ago he adopted a program to minimize loss of speed. He does sprints, agility drills and rope jumping—but only moderate jogging. "Jogging shortens up your muscles," Lopes says. Three weeks off a year is all he allows himself.
Still, Lopes isn't a total health nut. "Diet is my big deficiency," he says. Before a game with the Braves in late August, he ate a plate of scrambled eggs and a big steak and drank three cups of coffee as he discussed the art of base stealing. "I could talk for hours about stealing," he says. "It's one part of this game that is sorely neglected."