Davey Lopes' return a boost for Dodgers

The last time Davey Lopes wore a Los Angeles Dodgers uniform, it was soaked in champagne. It was Oct. 28, 1981, the Dodgers had just vanquished the New York Yankees in the World Series, and it was something of a last hurrah for one of the most talented groups of players the club had ever assembled.

"It was a lifetime ago," Lopes said Monday.

By the time the Dodgers gathered the next spring, second baseman Lopes was gone, having been traded to the Oakland A's, breaking up an infield that played together for a major league-record eight seasons. A year later, third baseman Ron Cey and first baseman Steve Garvey would be gone as well. Bill Russell, the shortstop, would stick around for a few more years and eventually manage the team for a time.

There was another world championship a few years later, but the Dodgers have never really been the same since Lopes was sent packing.

Now that Lopes finally has returned -- he was officially announced Monday as the team's first-base coach -- he isn't shy about waxing nostalgic. And he doesn't plan on being shy about trying to persuade the team's current players that they should feel that same sense of pride about wearing the Dodgers uniform.

"The background speaks for itself as far as what we accomplished as a group and as an organization over the years in L.A.," Lopes said via conference call with reporters. "I don't know if the Dodgers still have that. If they don't, then it's our job as coaches and a manager to instill that back into this organization.

"We always came out with the expectation of winning every single year. There was no pressure, because that was the normal thing for us as players."

Lopes spent 10 seasons with the Dodgers. During the eight seasons he shared an infield with Garvey, Cey and Russell, the team won four National League pennants and one World Series.

Lopes joins a coaching staff chosen by general manager Ned Colletti and new manager Don Mattingly that also will include bench coach Trey Hillman, hitting coach Jeff Pentland, third-base coach Tim Wallach, pitching coach Rick Honeycutt and bullpen coach Ken Howell, as well as secondary hitting coaches Dave Hansen and Manny Mota.

Lopes was a good fit for the Dodgers' staff for a lot of reasons, the most obvious being that he was suddenly available. After four seasons in the same job with the Philadelphia Phillies -- during which the club went to the playoffs every year, went to the World Series twice and led the majors in stolen-base success rate each season -- Lopes and the Phillies couldn't agree on contract terms this fall.

He made it clear that his desire was to return to his baseball roots, and the Phillies' loss quickly became the Dodgers' gain.

But baseball is a business, and important personnel decisions are rarely based on nostalgia. What made Lopes attractive to the Dodgers was his reputation around the game as a baserunning guru. The Dodgers -- who were successful on just 64.8 percent of their stolen-base attempts in 2010 -- could definitely use such a person.

"The opportunity to get Davey, that was really exciting to me from the standpoint that we have been trying, going on three years now, to work on our baserunning and trying to get that to the next level," Mattingly said. "I know we talked a lot about putting pressure on people, but it just didn't seem to get through. Davey has a reputation as a tremendous baserunning coach, and the guys I talked to about him all told me that Davey is the best."

Lopes had an unremarkable stint as manager of the Milwaukee Brewers, who hired him before the 2000 season and fired him 15 games into 2002. He had a mark of 144-195 with what was then a stagnant organization without much of a talent pool. He now says coaching first base and overseeing the running game is the role that best suits him.

One of the reasons it suited him so well in Philadelphia, where the Phillies were successful 84 percent of the time while he was there, was that manager Charlie Manuel gave Lopes full control over it.

"Players have to buy into what you're trying to teach them, and all they have to do is listen," said Lopes, who stole 557 bases in his career and as many as 77 in a single season. "It's 100 percent about reading pitchers' tendencies and those types of things. I based my career on that, and I was pretty successful as a player. I was blessed with the opportunity in Philly that I was allowed to take control of the running game. A lot of [managers] aren't comfortable doing that, but it worked well for us."

It sounds as though Lopes will be given something akin to that level of control with the Dodgers.

"Davey and I will have a chance to talk about that," Mattingly said. "I have tremendous respect for him when you're talking about baserunning. This guy is the cream of the crop. I'm not going to be someone who tries to hold him down, trust me."

There is one other important reason why Lopes made sense for the Dodgers: He has a reputation for being able to relate to the modern player, something former manager Joe Torre's staff struggled with at times over the past three seasons. Talented-but-underachieving center fielder Matt Kemp stands out in that regard.

Lopes says he has gotten to know Kemp over the years. Lopes and Kemp recently spoke by phone, and Lopes plans to spend a lot of time with Kemp during spring training.

"He has extraordinary ability," Lopes said. "It's a matter of how far he takes that. … You have to make a commitment to winning, and that is what we'll talk about once we get to spring training.

"Sometimes, players need somebody they can talk to. When I played, I could go talk to [Dodgers manager] Tommy [Lasorda], and he could motivate me. He gave me the confidence I needed, because major league baseball can humble you very quickly.

"A player needs to be able to talk to a guy who can keep building you up positively and elevate you. Then, at a certain time over the course of his career, he doesn't need that anymore."

Right now, the Dodgers appear to need a guy like Lopes desperately -- and not just because he reminds people of the good old days.

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.