Straight from the heart: Wildcats’ Lopez back on the diamond

Arizona baseball coach Andy Lopez is coming off quadruple bypass surgery three months ago.

TUCSON, Ariz. — Andy Lopez wasn’t much of a curveball hitter when he played the infield at UCLA in the 1970s.

"But I made contact," he said, laughing. "It’s pretty much what I’m doing now … just making contact."

Some things have changed in the three months Lopez has been away from baseball, but he hasn’t lost his wit, humor and enthusiasm for a game he loves.

The Arizona baseball coach will be back at Hi Corbett Field officially on Friday — he’s been back about a week preparing for the 2014 season — when he addresses about 35 young men as they begin to attempt a second NCAA title in three seasons.

His message will be: Enjoy the moment, enjoy your life and continue to work your tail off.

"You get a deeper appreciation for things you value in life," he said.

His witticisms and one-liners will be back. As will his hard-nosed, tell-it-like-it-is philosophy.

Talk about vulnerability. I never thought about my immortality … never ever have I given it a thought.

Andy Lopez, Arizona baseball coach

At 60, Lopez knows no other way — even three months removed from the biggest curveball of his life. Lopez suffered heart problems, requiring quadruple bypass surgery that left a nine-inch scar on his chest.

It took him all but a practice or two as an unofficial observer to get back in the groove, witnessing a player not putting all-out effort on a play.

Call it instinct.

Call it being a coach.

"I didn’t have to think about it and it was there," he said of his reaction. "Anyone within 200 yards could hear me."

So, the man who in 2012 led the Wildcats to their fifth NCAA title and his second championship is back.

"We’re obviously thrilled with Coach Lopez to return to the team and the diamond," Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne said. "He’s one of the great baseball coaches in the country, and we’re thrilled he’s at the University of Arizona.

"He obviously had a heck of a scare from a health standpoint, but to his credit he took it head on and has rested and has gotten himself back to be in a position to coach at Arizona for years to come."

Lopez is in his 32nd year as coach and 13th at Arizona.

It was not clear that would be the case after the Oct. 7 surgery that had him in bed wondering about his future, thinking about mortality.

"Talk about vulnerability," he said. "I never thought about my immortality … never ever have I given it a thought."

Why would he? He ran every day. He threw batting practice. He exercised, in part because his family has a history of heart problems — though he never did. Twenty-five years of exams and he was as clean and sharp as his game-day uniform.

Then, after a test prompted by a lingering neck injury that at times moved to his left chest, the news came he’d need surgery.

"It was the feeling like a rubber band being stretched out on the upper left side of my neck," he said of the pain.

Looking back, he said, the pain was there for some time — weeks, months. His first thought was to ice it and if there were continued problems, he’d have to stop throwing batting practice.

 "I just thought it was nothing, then my wife said I’d better check it out," he said.

A stress test and an abnormal reading later and he was in surgery three days later.

"I was more shocked than anything," he said. "I had physicals for 25 years and have never had a bad read. Cholesterol was always fine and blood pressure, too. I ran every day for 36 years."

But there he was lying on his back, staring at the ceiling … thinking.

His thoughts? How lucky he was and that every day he’d be able to appreciate the sunsets, sunrises, the weather and baseball.

"There was a lot of time for reflection," he said. "There was more of a sense of vulnerability after the surgery than before."

 And, of course, there were the thoughts of his family.

"I thought about my wife, kids, mom and dad (who have passed) and sister and brother," he said. "You understand how precious family is. I tell them I love them a lot. (Before) I never really thought about it."

It took something he sees every day — a curveball.

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