Jorge Lopez Has Been In the Eye Of the Storm

Photo Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Jorge López was stuck in his house when Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in 2017. His five-year-old son Mikael was running a fever, and the power was out. Maria was the deadliest Atlantic hurricane since 1998, a Category 5 storm that killed 3,059 people, including an estimated 2,957 in Puerto Rico. It caused $91 billion in damages and the worst electrical blackout in United States history, which persisted for months. It was hard to get a flight out.

Mikael was sick but eventually calmed down. López was able to leave his home in Cayey and fly to Miami. He sent Mikael to the Miami Children’s Hospital in Coral Gables and then left for the Dominican Republic to play Winter Ball. Mikael was born with an autoimmune disease that is a combination of familial Mediterranean fever and Chron’s disease. Mikael recovered in Miami and is currently being treated at Cincinnati’s Children’s Hospital, one of the best pediatric hospitals in the nation.

“I was stuck in Puerto Rico, like everybody else,” says López.

I mean, I know a bunch of people tried to get out right after we were getting hit. Even at the end of the day, I couldn’t do anything for like a week. I just tried to keep going to help the community and try to fix little things I could.

My son, he was like 100 and something (degrees), which was kinda crazy. It was a lot of scary moments right there. But I just tried to get that stress out just helping the community and tried to keep right next to him, [hoping] everything will get better.

And thank God they opened the airport as soon as they opened. We took off from Puerto Rico, flew to Miami, and in Miami, it was good relief in that moment.

López had only pitched 12 innings in three major league games at that point, giving up 18 hits and seven earned runs for the Milwaukee Brewers. But he played some of his best ball with Aguilas of the Dominican Winter League. López made 13 starts, pitched 68.2 innings, and left the Dominican Republic with a 2.49 ERA.

“Being there was really, really good to keep focus on what I need to bring to that season,” says López. “Because if I go to Miami, I probably don’t do the same thing that I was gonna do in the Dominican. It really helped me, that league. It kinda motivated me to keep going, because it was really, really tough for me.”

The Dominican Winter League allowed players from Puerto Rico to join because of Maria’s devastation. López didn’t know his teammates, but he made quick friends and immediately integrated himself into the clubhouse.

“There wasn’t any ballparks in the country,” López says. “There was nothing. It pretty much took like two years. Right now, they’re building. But that’s one thing, as an MLB player, MLB is gonna help in rebuilding those stadiums. Hopefully, we just keep going, because at the end of the day, the future is gonna be our kids, and they need it more than us, for sure.”

However, he was able to return to Puerto Rico to make one start for Mayaguez in their Winter League, striking out seven and giving up one earned run in 6.0 innings. There were only about 100 people in the stands, and it was an emotional moment for López.

“The league started right the next year in January. So I wanted to pitch, but I had already almost 80 innings, and I was, ‘Okay, I wanna do it at least for the people who want to see something different. They go to the ballpark, they’ve been stressed out for the last four, five months. Hopefully, they can at least go to the ballpark.’

“So I did that, and I only have one [game]. I couldn’t do it from that point [on] with the rules and everything. Eighty innings in Winter Ball is a lot.”

López was happy to return to Puerto Rico, but he says it was difficult to see the devastation.

It was really tough. Puerto Rico has been through, from that year again, it’s been through a lot of more things, also. It [didn’t catch any breaks], for sure. It’s just, for it to have as much as you can, go there. And for me, it’s more about kids than what they’ve been (through), and their mental health they’re going through.

Because the same thing happened to them, so hopefully, I could bring something there. Go to the street, and you don’t have to go to a ballpark, just keep playing what you love.

When I was a kid, I wasn’t going to the ballpark. At that time, I was getting a stick of whatever, and I create a ball and create an environment of being family, being more concentrated on them.

Tried to bring that positive energy all the time, every day. Because at the end of the day, we crossed that water to here, and it’s much better, and it’s still there. We think we suffer in our mental health here, but they’re more. They live it. For me, I’m more family, and you really sad. So for me, I just go there and try to help as much as I can.

However, his time in the Dominican Winter League helped López establish himself as a major leaguer. Still, he wasn’t at his best until the Baltimore Orioles made him a reliever last year. In July 2018, Milwaukee traded López and Brett Phillips to the Kansas City Royals for Mike Moustakas. López made 18 starts for Kansas City but owned a 6.33 ERA. The Royals waived him after one relief appearance in 2020.

Baltimore picked him up off of waivers, and he owned a 6.00-plus ERA as a starter for them in 2020 and 2021. However, he had a 1.68 ERA in 48.1 innings as an Orioles reliever last year, earning his first All-Star appearance. On July 1, 2022, López came to Target Field with a 0.73 ERA and sub-1.00 WHIP when Baltimore deployed him to preserve a 2-1 lead in the ninth inning of a 3-2 game.

Luis Arraez led off the ninth and hit a single to center. Then Byron Buxton walked him off with a home run to left field. A month later, Buxton was recruiting López at the All-Star Game in Los Angeles. Buxton wasn’t alone in wanting López to join Minnesota’s bullpen. Carlos Correa and López met when López was in middle school before he left Cayey to pursue his baseball career. They’ve had a longstanding relationship, and Correa felt López could help the bullpen while bringing the locker room closer together.

“He’s down to earth. He’s just such a great kid,” Correa said at the time. “Bilingual, speaks both languages. So he’s going to interact with the Americans as well as the Latins. He is a guy that you can give information, and he’s going to make the necessary adjustments. He’s not close-minded, very open-minded, very coachable. And when you have guys with the stuff that he has that can still improve, and they’re willing to listen, it’s always a good combination.”

On Aug. 2, the Twins traded Yennier Canó and three prospects for López. ESPN’s Bradford Doolittle slammed the Orioles while commending the Twins for going for it with a narrow division lead. But you know the rest. Rocco Baldelli installed López as his closer, only to watch López give up 23 hits and 11 earned runs in 22.2 innings (4.37 ERA). López lost his closer spot, and the Cleveland Guardians passed the Twins late in the season to take the Central.

López is back in spring training with the Twins this year, and he’s witnessed the damage Hurricane Ian inflicted on Southwest Florida. Ian was less devastating than Maria, but it caused 149 casualties in Florida. It is the third-costliest weather disaster on record, and the deadliest hurricane to strike the Sunshine State since 1935. The storm hit Fort Myers, Sanibel Island, and Naples particularly hard, and the hurricane damage was still prevalent when the Twins started spring training in February. Parts of Hammond Stadium were still being repaired.

The first thing López did when he touched down in Fort Myers was visit the Estero Islands, where the storm hit particularly hard.

“It was really, really sad,” he says. “Really sad. Really sad. I put it in my mind, I’m gonna try to help as much as I can. Every restaurant, I go there and try to enjoy the good people. My first two, three days, I went to a couple of restaurants right next to it, and they just talked about it, and they tried to reboot.

“I’m going to try to help as much as I can here. [Have] my dinner there and try to help those people.”

López is working on simplifying things in spring training. If he can get back to the form he was in with Baltimore, he could form a formidable one-two punch with Jhoan Durán in the back end of the bullpen.

“I feel like get better on little things,” he says. “Just try to be simple and know the guys. It’s a new team for me, even though it only was only one month. It’s just great to figure that out, who we are, and as a team. We gotta hold the mindset of winning.

“For me, especially, just being better than last year and try to help the team.”

He’s in a storm-ravaged area again, reacclimating with his teammates and trying to become an All-Star closer. Sadly, it’s a familiar situation. But he’s been through the eye of the storm before and left as an improved player. He had a tough month after Minnesota traded for him, but it’s hardly the most challenging thing he’s faced in his life.

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