For three months, the only excitement in Andy Lopez’s day came at 4 p.m., when “Seinfeld” came on TV.
“I turned to my wife one day and I said, ‘Man, this is getting boring,’” the Arizona baseball coach said. “ ‘Seinfeld’ at 4 and then ‘SportsCenter’ at 5. Where’s the shortstop that needs work? Where’s the second baseman that needs to work on his throw? Where’s the catcher that needs to work on his blocking?
“Those guys didn’t exist.”
They do now.
Lopez, entering his 13th season as the head man at the UA, is back where he belongs. The Wildcats opened practice Friday afternoon at Hi Corbett Field, three weeks before the season opener against Kent State. The coach, who had quadruple bypass heart surgery in October, observed the team’s intrasquad game from the top step of the third base dugout, hanging on every pitch.
After months of reruns and rehabilitation, the 60-year-old feels healthy and is eager for the start of the season.
“I missed it more than I realized,” Lopez said. “It’s good to be back. I probably took a lot of this for granted after doing it for 37 years.
“It became such a routine. When that routine got altered and taken away for two months, I realized I really like this. I knew I did, but there were a lot of things that I didn’t know I would miss.”
The coach has been back working with his players since Jan. 15 when individual workouts began and won’t leave their side leading up to the Feb. 14 opener.
After missing fall practice and turning things over to assistants Shaun Cole and Matt Siegel, Lopez first met with his team on Dec. 5 before final exams and holiday break.
He never missed a step.
“It was perfect ‘Lopes,’” junior pitcher Mat Troupe said. “He walks in and you have to remember, the freshmen haven’t really dealt with him yet. He walks in and says, ‘I want you guys to know, I just had some clogged arteries that I got cleaned up. I didn’t have a heart attack. So if you guys think that I’m not going to be hard on you or even harder, you better second-guess that.’
“I kinda smirked and was like, ‘Oh yeah, he’s back.’”
And not only is Lopez reinvigorated following his health scare, he also has some added motivation. Following his team’s 34-21 mark last year and 15-15 finish in the Pac-12, the Wildcats were left out of the NCAA tournament despite having won it all in 2012.
Last season, only four Pac-12 teams were included in the 64-team field that UCLA eventually went on to win.
“That is absolutely motivation,” Lopez said. “I am still very upset about that. I thought it was an injustice not only to us, but to the entire conference. We only had four teams qualify, which just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.
“That’s something we talk about a lot.”
His players feel the same way.
“It’s burning in every single one of us and obviously Coach Lopez as well,” Troupe said. “Us older guys need to tell the younger guys, ‘We’ve been on both sides. We’ve won it all and we’ve been left out. You don’t want to be on the side we were last year.’”
Sophomore shortstop Kevin Newman spent his summer playing in the prestigious Cape Cod Baseball League and won the batting title. Part of his fuel all summer was his team’s postseason snub.
“The second I got back here, it was go time and everyone knows exactly what we’re trying to do, which is get back to Omaha,” Newman said. “Get to the playoffs first and then get back to Omaha. I think the way last season ended is motivation for all of us.”
Lopez’s hope is that this year’s team won’t have to leave anything to the NCAA tournament selection committee come the end of the season. The coach welcomes back six returning starters in the field and two-thirds of his weekend pitching rotation. Troupe, who spent the past two seasons as the closer, will transition into the starting rotation.
“I’m really excited about this group,” Lopez said. “I’m excited to be back out here working with them after my assistants did a great job getting them ready. There’s three things I always say you have to do: Have a plan, get them ready and play the right guys. Well, two of the three are already done thanks to my assistants and now I just have to play the right guys and we won’t know that until the season starts.”