Arizona baseball coach Andy Lopez expects to keep suiting up and taking the field. “I have a five-year contract, and I fully intend to work all of it,” he says.

Mike Christy / Arizona Daily Star 2013

A surgeon saws a hole in your sternum, unclogs your arteries and a few days later sends you home with a nine-inch scar across your chest.

You are not indestructible, not any more. That pain in your neck the last few months hadn’t been a pulled muscle at all. It had been a ticking time bomb.

“I was foolish,” you say now. “When the doctor told me I needed surgery, I said, ‘You’ve got the wrong guy, doc.’ ”

Even as you lie in bed, at 2 a.m., sore, unable to sleep and a bit scared, you are certain of one thing: You are lucky to be alive.

You think of your friend, your kindred baseball spirit, Dave Sitton, who died two months earlier of something similar, something tragic.

“I could’ve been Dave Sitton,” you say. “I’ve thought about it; I still think about it.”

There is a medical term for what was lurking in Andy Lopez’s chest last summer and fall: the widowmaker.

Lopez turned 60 a few days after Thanksgiving, and it might have been the best birthday he ever had. “It took me a long time to understand how fragile life is,” he says. “I’ve always had a perspective on things, but maybe not as much as I needed to have. Maybe I had the first three letters, p-e-r.”

Now Arizona’s baseball coach can add the s-p-e-c-t-i-v-e.

Today, after three months of rest and restlessness, Lopez opens workouts for the 2014 season at Hi Corbett Field. He has lost a little weight but gained a lifetime of bearing.

During his rehabilitation from heart surgery, Lopez drew up a plan for the rest of his life. Baseball will no longer be a runaway train. When he hugged his daughter Kerri goodbye on Monday afternoon, sending her back to her adult life in Los Angeles, Lopez made a promise not to forget the plan.

“Dad,” Kerri insisted, “promise me you’ll take care of yourself.”

“I’m following the plan,” he assured her. “No unnecessary stress.”

For 30 years, Lopez would take the game home with him. “Even if we won 10-1 on a two-hitter, I’d be awake until 2, 3 in the morning, going over the details, beating myself up,” he says. “My family has a history of heart disease, and I didn’t put 2 and 2 together.”

This year, for the first time since arriving at Arizona in 2002, Lopez will manage more than a baseball team. He will manage his well-being.

At the doctor’s request, Linda Lopez made a list of 15 things that irritate her husband. A simple baseball game didn’t make the top 10. It was all the outside-the-line things that hardened those arteries, especially recruiting.

Recruiting isn’t going to get any less complicated. If anything, it has become more provocative in the last decade, trying to squeeze 25 players onto a roster with 11.7 scholarships, working on the future, trying to figure out a 15-year-old shortstop in the Class of 2016 before some guy at UCLA or Oregon does.

Lopez missed the entire fall recruiting session, money time, for the first time since before he was a young coach at Cal State-Dominguez Hills. And yet most college baseball recruiting services ranked Arizona in the Top 25.

You ask Lopez: Do you still have the same drive to coach? He stops you before the question gets out.

“I have a five-year contract, and I fully intend to work all of it,” he says. “My standards haven’t changed. I’m just taking better care of myself.”

He lifts weight three days a week. He is on the treadmill for 45 minutes three days a week. He’s not running, not yet, but he’s about to.

He can’t wait to spend this afternoon in the bullpen, watching his new pitchers, especially Morgan Earman, and getting the first look at his new hitters, Willie Calhoun and Bobby Dalbec.

Until now Lopez has survived on the updates from his coaches, Shaun Cole and Matt Siegel, but seeing is believing, if you are a baseball coach.

“People ask me if we’re going to be good, but I can’t tell them,” says Lopez. “I met with the club for the first time on Dec. 5, but I didn’t see a second of fall practice.”

Arizona’s schedule is loaded: 56 games in 101 days. He vows to neither rush it nor make it seem like 101 games in 56 days.

“I’m very much aware of my health,” he says. “Every time I take off my shirt I see that big old scar. It gets my attention.”

On Saturday, Lopez worked a long day. He ran camps for high school teams from New Mexico and California. He helped big-leaguers J.J. Hardy and Shelley Duncan operate a clinic. He was involved with a camp for Ironwood Ridge High School.

Same Andy Lopez, different approach.

“I found myself in the middle of a workout going, ‘Wow, I like this.’ ” he says. “Isn’t it a beautiful day?”


Sports columnist for the Arizona Daily Star.