Things change. That’s a truism that, in its pithy wisdom, fails to reveal that perceptions of the past — even the recent past — can vary so widely from those of contemporary observers.
Ask any Tigers fan today who the team’s biggest pitching stars were in that glorious summer of 1984. The first two answers will surely be Jack Morris and Willie Hernandez. Many also will remember Dan Petry, and maybe even a couple will mention Milt Wilcox. Those few who remember Aurelio Lopez, stalwart reliever and mainstay of the 1984 championship club’s bullpen, will usually accompany their recollection with a smile while blurting out Lopez’s nickname, Señor Smoke.
For cultural reasons, Señor Smoke connotes something very different north of the U.S.-Mexico border than south of it. Among Tigers fans of a certain age scattered throughout the States, Señor Smoke is a sobriquet for a Latino relief pitcher who threw hard and pitched well. However, while affectionately used, it is not a term of the highest respect like Hammerin’ Hank (applied to the dominant slugger Hank Greenberg) or Prince Hal (applied to two-time American League Most Valuable Player Hal Newhouser).
Of course, both Greenberg and Newhouser were truly great players who became Hall of Famers, while Lopez was not. But Aurelio Lopez was substantially better than most US fans now remember, and the hard-throwing hurler remains a legend in his native land. Lopez was so much more than just another hard-throwing relief pitcher with a terrific nickname.
Beat writer Tom Gage has covered the Tigers for the Detroit News for the past quarter-century. Back when The Sporting News was still called the Bible of Baseball, Gage wrote the Detroit season-in-review essays for its authoritative annual Guide.
In the 1984 edition of The Sporting News Guide, Gage wrote the following in his essay reviewing the 1983 season entitled “Tigers Shed ‘Mediocre’ Label”: “Aurelio Lopez was one of the league’s more dominant relief pitchers with 16 saves and seven victories through August 1 before slumping in the final two months.”
A year later, in the 1985 Guide, Gage’s review of the 1984 championship season was labeled, “Tigers Enjoy a Dream Season.” Here is what he wrote about Lopez: “[P]itching had a lot to do with Detroit’s success. The Tigers led all American League clubs with a 3.49 earned-run average and 51 saves. The bullpen duo of Hernandez and Aurelio Lopez was, perhaps, the most consistently effective segment of that pitching staff.”
Between them, Hernandez and Lopez were 19-4 with 46 saves and a 2.43 ERA. Hernandez alone (1.92 ERA) had 32 saves in 33 save situations as he broke the team record for pitching appearances with 80.
Voluble Detroit manager Sparky Anderson nailed it in fewer words. “I can tell you the difference between Detroit and Toronto in two words,” Anderson said just before the Tigers clinched the American League East title. “Hernandez and Lopez.”
Without taking anything away from Hernandez and his great season, these remarks show just how important Lopez was to the 1984 world champion Tigers.
Aurelio Lopez is one of the greatest — and certainly the most underrated — relief pitchers in the history of the Detroit Tigers. Despite its standing as one of the American League’s charter franchises, the Tigers don’t exactly have a history of strong relievers. Take a look at the most basic measure, career saves. After the top five (statistics through 2009), you’re in pretty undistinguished territory.
*All stats from years with Detroit Tigers
The aforementioned raw save totals don’t really tell the story. Jones benefited from being a closer in the Dennis Eckersley-Mariano Rivera mode; he generally was called upon to pitch the final inning and typically entered the game with no runners on base. In his seven-plus seasons in Detroit, Jones averaged almost exactly an inning per appearance while racking up his 235 saves despite allowing almost 1.5 baserunners per nine innings. Jones led the league in saves only once and was picked as an All-Star only once. He appeared on a Cy Young Award ballot only one time in his career — the same as Lopez. (Jones got three mentions in 2000; Lopez received on in 1979.)
In the postseason, Lopez went 2-0 in October for the Tigers, pitching six scoreless innings, allowing five hits and two walks while striking out six. Jones pitched seven innings in seven games in the postseason for Detroit, allowing seven hits and one walk, and hitting one batter. He fanned four and was charged with one unearned run from a fielding error he committed.
When comparing Lopez to Jones, the distinguishing mark of Jones’ career is mainly longevity. He was rarely brilliant and would probably have been a disaster if asked to carry the kind of workload that Lopez shouldered — whereas Lopez would probably have excelled in the cosseted milieu of the contemporary closer.
Mike Henneman took over from Guillermo Hernandez as the Tigers’ closer in 1988, bridging the heydays of the Bruce Sutter-Goose Gossage era with the Dennis Eckersley-Mariano Rivera era. Henneman hurled 669⅔ innings in 491 games in his nine seasons in Detroit. While consistent, the right-hander was rarely brilliant, never leading the league in any pitching category of note, receiving only one American League All-Star nod, no Cy Young recognition, and only a solitary third-place vote for Rookie of the Year. Henneman was at his best in his first five seasons in the majors, when he won 49 and lost only 21 while averaging more than 1⅓ innings per appearance and posting an ERA+ of 139. (ERA+ is a comparison of the pitcher’s ERA to the league ERA, adjusted for ballpark; 100 is average.) In the post-season for the Tigers Henneman won one game after blowing the save opportunity in three appearances in the 1987 ALCS, allowing six hits and six runs in five frames.
Hiller’s career was something like Hernandez’s in that it featured a brilliant peak of two consecutive seasons, with a couple of other good years. Pete Palmer, in the ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia, adjusts his ratings for closers to reflect the extra value of their innings. Despite his gaudy save totals, Jones managed only 4.9 Pitcher Wins while with Detroit, while Lopez totaled 7.7. Hernandez posted 9.3, Henneman (reflecting his longevity) 12.3, and Hiller 21.0. That rating better reflects Lopez’s place in Detroit bullpen history.
Aurelio Alejandro Lopez y Rios was born on September 21, 1948, in the village of Tecamachalco in Puebla state, Mexico. On May 16, 1971, Lopez married Maria Celia Corral de Lopez. The couple had two children, Aurelio in 1972 and Kachia Guadalupe in 1976.
Many Tigers fans still remember Lopez fondly. The Detroit rock band Electric Six named its second album Señor Smoke in his honor. The album was released in 2005 in the United Kingdom by Rushmore Records, a division of Warner Records. Metropolis Records released the album a year later in the United States.
Lopez made his professional debut at the age of 18 in the minor-league Mexican Southeast League in 1967. The young pitcher showed a distinct lack of control but also a lot of talent, catching the eye of scout Ramon “Chita” Garcia of the Mexico City Diablos Rojos (Red Devils). Signed by Garcia, Lopez pitched for Las Choapas, a newly organized farm club of the Red Devils in the Mexican Southeast League, a minor league rated as Class A by Organized Baseball.
One year later, at 19, Lopez was pitching for the powerful Red Devils in the Mexican League; he was used mostly as a starter in his first four seasons. The prestigious Mexican League was at that time, and remains today, the pinnacle of pro baseball in that country. Starting in 1967, the Mexican League was rated by Organized Baseball as a Triple-A league.
The callow young pitcher was farmed out in 1969 by Mexico City to Minatitlan of the Mexican Southeast League, where the Las Choapas club had relocated. There he appeared in 16 games before returning to the parent club for good. While with the junior Diablos Rojos, Lopez hurled a perfect game against Ciudad del Carmen, winning 1-0.
In 1973, Lopez’s manager, Wilfredo Calvino, converted the young righty into a full-time relief pitcher. It was a prescient move on Calvino’s part, and from 1974 to ’77, Lopez worked exclusively out of the bullpen (aside from two starts). Lopez led the loop in appearances and saves for four consecutive seasons (1974 through 1977), and his name is scattered today throughout the Mexican League single-season and career pitching leaders.
In 1975, Lopez set a Mexican League record by pitching in 71 games. Two years later, he broke his own record by appearing in 73 games. His 30 saves in 1977 shattered the previous Mexican League record of 24 (set in 1973); Lopez’s save record stood for 14 years. He also set a record in ’77 with 19 wins in relief.
Overall, Lopez pitched for 10 seasons in Mexico, all with Red Devils, who won four championships in that span, while losing in the championship series in three other years. The strong-armed right-hander compiled a 97-83 record with a 3.18 ERA in 472 games (108 starts). He also notched at least 99 saves (saves were not recorded in Mexico before 1973). In his final year in the Mexican League, Lopez went 19-8 with a 2.01 ERA and 30 saves in 73 games, winning the loop's 1977 Jugador Mas Valioso (MVP) Award.
Never one to shirk extra work, Lopez also pitched in the Mexican Pacific League, a winter league, winning the loop’s Most Valuable Player awards for the 1973-74 and 1976-77 seasons when he was with Mazatlan and Guasave, respectively.
After his death in 1992, Lopez was honored by being inducted into the Salon de la Fama del Beisbol Profesional de Mexico (Mexican Professional Baseball Hall of Fame) on June 19, 1993. Lopez’s biography on the Salon de la Fama Web site says that he was considered the fastest pitcher in the history of Mexican baseball. In his native country, Señor Smoke was also known as "El Lanzallama" — the flamethrower.
Lopez made his major-league debut in 1974 at the age of 25 after being purchased by Kansas City on August 29 from Mexico City. He appeared in eight games in the last five weeks of the season, allowing 21 hits and 10 walks in 16 innings while striking out only five hitters. Obviously, the young Mexican hurler wasn't ready for the big leagues yet, and the Royals sold him back to the Mexico City club the following spring.
Four years later, after dominating in the Mexican League, a more experienced Lopez returned to the major leagues with St. Louis after being purchased by the Cardinals from Mexico City on October 26, 1977. St. Louis first farmed him out to Triple-A Springfield of the American Association, where Lopez appeared in 34 games in relief in 1978, posting a 6-6 record with a 3.55 ERA. More importantly, he fanned 81 hitters in 76 innings, showing the first inkling of the kind of explosive stuff he would soon bring to Detroit. Promoted to the Cardinals in mid-July, Lopez pitched decently for St. Louis for the rest of the season, appearing in 25 games while making four starts.
Detroit acquired Lopez as part of a four-player trade with St. Louis on December 4, 1978. The Tigers sent two young left-handed pitchers, Bob Sykes and Jack Murphy, to the Cardinals, receiving veteran outfielder Jerry Morales and Lopez in return. Lopez wasn’t exactly a throw-in, but at the time he was probably regarded as the least important of the four players in the swap.
Veteran Detroit baseball writer Jim Hawkins, in his analysis of the trade, described Lopez merely as a “hard-throwing right-handed reliever” who was “4-2 mainly in long relief with the Cardinals.” Yet Lopez had by far the best career after the trade of any of the quartet involved, starting in the middle of the 1979 season.
Morales was a complete bust in Motown and was sent packing after one season (.211 average,.624 OPS in 129 games) splitting time in right field with lefty swinger Champ Summers. With the Tigers, Sykes had posted a 6-6 record with a 3.94 ERA in 93⅔ innings. After the trade, however, he struggled with the Cardinals, managing only a 12-13 record and a 5.08 ERA in 62 games in 1979-81 before closing out his career in the minors in 1982. Murphy spent two disappointing years in the Cards’ system and one year in the Montreal Expos’ organization before finishing his career in 1981, never having risen above Double-A.
Which leaves only the unheralded Lopez. The 1980 Detroit Tigers media guide said Lopez was the “surprise player of the year  for the Tigers.” Further, it noted that Lopez was “rarely used until Sparky Anderson became manager.” Indeed, Lopez appeared in only 13 games during Les Moss’ 53 games in charge; all but one of those appearances came in Detroit losses. Even worse, Lopez was rusting away, having pitched only one inning in the last two weeks of Moss’ tenure and in Dick Tracewski’s brief interregnum.
Sparky Anderson, however, saw potential in Lopez, making the Mexican hurler the club’s closer in early July. The hard-throwing righty inherited the mantle of 36-year-old lefty change-up artist John Hiller, who was nearing the end of his fine career. In all, the Tigers’ new manager called on Lopez 48 times in his 106 games as skipper in 1979. Lopez responded beautifully to the greater workload and greater responsibility, going 10-4 with 21 saves and a 1.87 ERA under Anderson while becoming Detroit’s closer of the future. To cap off his breakout year, Lopez was invited to tour Japan with an American League all-star squad during the 1979-80 offseason.
At that time, Lopez had an outstanding fastball plus a slider and a screwball, a repertoire he continued to employ till the end of his career. Like a lot of Latin pitchers, he varied his angle of delivery, sometimes dropping from three-quarters down to sidearm against right-handed hitters. His herky-jerky motion gave him good deception, and, in his prime, he could locate his fastball well or simply throw it by most hitters.
As he aged, however, Lopez – like many major leaguers in their 30s – put on too much weight, ultimately being listed as high as carrying 230 pounds on his 6-foot frame. (He was listed as weighing only 200 when he debuted in the majors.) While he continued to throw hard till the end of his career, scouts reported that his fastball lacked movement in the mid-1980s, which meant that good hitters could pound it a long way if they caught up to it – which they did frequently in his two worst years, 1982 and 1985, when he allowed 1.8 and 1.6 home runs per nine innings, respectively.
Many Latino pitchers of that era — as well as a few American pitchers — still employed the screwball, which faded into disuse in the 1990s. In Lopez’s case, he would use the scroogie on the outside part of the plate to left-handed hitters, with the elusive pitch diving down and away. Lopez used the slider in a similar way to frustrate right-handed hitters, though his blazing heater was always his No. 1 offering. As he struggled to stay in the majors the last two years, Lopez reportedly experimented with several other pitches, including a splitter that he learned from Tiger pitching coach Roger Craig.
From 1979 to 1984, the stalwart right-hander appeared in 304 games for the Tigers, compiling a superb 50-23, .685 record with a 3.22 ERA, 25 percent better than the league average. In 626⅔ innings of work, he allowed only 527 hits while walking 220 hitters non-intentionally and fanning 466. He saved only 80 games (and blew 22 save opportunities for a 78.4 save percentage rate) during those six seasons, though he led the Detroit staff with 21 saves in both 1979 and 1980 and with 18 in 1983. Though 21 saves seems almost negligible by today’s standards for a closer, Lopez’s 21 saves tied for third in the American League in ’79 and placed seventh in 1980. In 1983 the Detroit closer’s 18 saves were good for eighth in the junior circuit; in ’84, he finished 10th.
In 1982 the usually durable reliever spent 38 days on the disabled list in Detroit, his only such term in the big leagues. Placed on the Detroit disabled list in spring training with a sore shoulder, he was activated in mid-May by the Tigers. After returning, he struggled until early July, when he was demoted to Triple-A to work out his problems with Evansville. He was 4-0 (1.76 ERA) with the Evansville Triplets and was recalled by Detroit in September, pitching well for the last month of the season.
The following year, Lopez was selected for the 1983 American League All-Star team while enjoying a stupendous first half of the season: 5-3 with a 1.83 ERA and 11 saves in 30 games. He held hitters to a .176 batting average, allowing only 39 hits in 64 innings while striking out 60. The Tigers’ closer did not appear in that Midsummer Classic, however, which the American League won 13-3 in a walk, breaking a streak of 11 consecutive National League victories. It turned out to be his only All-Star nod.
Then, of course, came that championship season of 1984. Despite faulty recollections and revisionist histories to the contrary, Lopez started the ’84 season as Detroit’s closer, the same role in which he had ended ’83. Manager Sparky Anderson wrote in his diary about the Tigers’ game against the future American League West champion Royals on May 9, when Lopez punched out four of the eight hitters he faced, allowing only a harmless walk: “I brought in Aurelio Lopez and I never saw him throw harder. ... He struck out four and no one had a chance to hit off him. Lopey never seems to be scared. When he’s on top of his game, he’s better than Clay Carroll used to be for me. And Carroll was some kind of pitcher.”
Needless to say, Sparky wasn’t talking about Lopez as his No. 2 man. George Cantor, who covered the Tigers as a columnist in ’84, identified Hernandez’s breakthrough as occurring on May 4, but the record shows that Anderson didn’t assign Lopez solely to setup work until June.
While Lopez spent the balance of that victorious summer in Motown as the No. 2 pitcher in Sparky Anderson’s bullpen pecking order, it’s not as if he was getting cuffed around while Hernandez was cruising toward his postseason accolades. In June, July, and August, Lopez went 6-0 with five saves in 39 appearances, holding enemy batsmen to a .224 average while whiffing 55 in 79 innings and posting a 3.08 ERA. September, however, was not so good — a harbinger of things to come.
In September 1984 Lopez’s redoubtable right arm plainly wore out. In 12 games (17 innings), he allowed 21 hits and 10 earned runs while striking out only eight, saving two games but also being charged with his only loss of the season. He finished the year 10-1. The following season brought more of the same, as Lopez was hit hard for the rest of the year (.849 opponents’ OPS, 5.92 ERA) after pitching decently in April and May. By midseason 1985, Anderson no longer entrusted a save situation to Lopez; by September, the bullpen phone rang for Lopez only when Detroit was trailing; by the end of the year, the veteran reliever’s days wearing the jersey with the proud Old English D were over.
In 1980, the Tigers’ media guide said that Lopez “prefers heavy work load to stay sharp.” And years later, Detroit pitching coach Roger Craig said that Lopez had really surprised him: “He told me that he could pitch three days in a row, and he’d be throwing harder on the third day than the first. I didn’t believe him till I saw it for myself.” The evidence strongly suggests that Lopez’s eagerness to pitch, when combined with the quick hooks of starting pitchers that manager Sparky Anderson was famous for, led to Lopez’s sudden decline.
Because of the brilliant bullpen work of Lopez and Hernandez, the Tigers were the only club in the majors to win all 87 games that they led at the start of the ninth inning or later. (Note, however, that the American League average in that category was 95 percent.) The 1985 Elias Baseball Analyst called the Detroit relief duo “the most effective one-two relief combination in baseball.” As a perfect example of how quickly things change, one year later the 1986 edition of the Elias book placed much of the blame for the Tigers’ disappointing ’85 season on “the failure of Lopez to provide the same service ... as a year earlier.”
Because of Detroit's dominance in the 1984 postseason, Lopez was used sparingly. He appeared in only one game in the AL Championship Series, pitching three scoreless innings in Game Two and getting the win when the Tigers rallied in the 11th inning to defeat the Royals. In the World Series Lopez worked three scoreless innings overall, earning the win in the Game Five clincher when he fanned four Padres batters in 2⅓ innings of relief. (He also appeared in the 1986 National League Championship Series with the Houston Astros, entering the climactic Game Six in the 14th inning and taking the loss after allowing two runs to the victorious Mets in the 16th.)
Detroit released Lopez after the 1985 season, when the 36-year-old veteran slumped to 3-7, 4.80 in 51 games while allowing almost a hit per inning – a sign of his declining stuff. He signed with Houston in midseason 1986, finishing his career with the Astros, who released the 38-year-old veteran in midseason 1987. Before the end, however, Lopez had one more moment in the sun, going 3-3 with seven saves and a 3.46 ERA in 45 games, helping the Astros win the National League West Division in ’86.
Lopez was one of the last of the old breed of closers — guys who would take the ball anytime starting in the seventh inning or later and expect to finish the game. To truly appreciate his effectiveness, one cannot simply look at his save totals; one must look also at his won-lost record, his earned run average, and the number of innings he pitched.
At the end of 1984 Lopez’s good name was included on four of the five lists of lifetime relief pitching leaders in Macmillan’s Baseball Encyclopedia, including placing second in Relief Winning Percentage with his career mark of .685.
Although his biography from the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame says that Lopez was known as the Vulture of Tecamachalco, he was most definitely not a “vulture” by baseball standards during his Detroit days, even though he has erroneously been called so by some writers whose hindsight is not 20-20. Paul Dickson’s estimable dictionary of the national pastime defines vulture as a “relief pitcher, typically a middle relief pitcher, who receives credit for a win to which another pitcher was more entitled; e.g., a relief pitcher whose ineffective pitching prevents an earlier pitcher from receiving the win, as when the relief pitcher blows a lead, only to wind up winning when his teammates retake the lead.”
Take a look at Lopez’s 1984 stat line and game logs and find out exactly where he “vultured” wins from more deserving teammates. Lopez blew only two saves all year, one of which earned him a win and one a loss. Of his nine other wins, he entered with the game tied four times, allowing no runs in any of those games. Twice he relieved a struggling starter in the fifth inning when the high-scoring Tigers held the lead and was credited with the win – a situation in which the official scorer could have awarded the W to another relief pitcher if he believed someone else had pitched more effectively than Lopez. The final three times Lopez came into the game with Detroit trailing and was helped by the Tigers’ bats, but so what? In two of those games, he neither allowed an inherited run nor was scored upon himself. In the final instance, Lopez got the win after pitching a scoreless eighth inning against the Yankees before the Tigers took the lead in the bottom of the eighth. In the ninth Lopez was touched for two unearned runs, both scoring after Hernandez had relieved him.
There is no justification for calling Lopez a “vulture” in 1984. His gaudy won-lost record and relatively low number of saves is not a result of taking “advantage of the Tigers’ late-inning offense” (as one scribe phrased it in a 2009 retrospective on the 1984 season). If anything, it was the reverse: Detroit’s potent attack took advantage when Lopez shut down the opposition to win many games that the Tigers otherwise would have lost. Detroit scored an average of 0.60 runs per inning in the first three frames in 1984, then 0.57 runs per inning during the middle three frames of the game, and only 0.54 runs per inning in the seventh, eighth, and ninth, when Lopez would typically be on the hill.
A great example of how one should not apply today’s standards to 1984 is that Lopez had only three holds that season, tied with Carl Willis. The team leaders, with five, were Doug Bair and Bill Scherrer! By way of contrast, the 2009 Tigers’ mound corps had five pitchers with more than five holds, with the team leader amassing 28 and the runner-up notching 15 holds. Why? Because the “hold” stat requires a pitcher to enter the game with a lead and not finish the game, and Lopez often was called upon in tie games or when the Tigers were behind. In fact, Lopez answered the bell more than half the time without a lead, whereas Hernandez took the mound almost two-thirds of the time with a Detroit lead.
After retiring from baseball following the 1987 season, Lopez returned to his native village in Mexico. He was elected as municipal president (mayor) of Tecamachalco three years later.
Lopez died in a car crash in Matehuala, San Luis Potosi, on September 22, 1992. He was 44 at the time of his death, which occurred, according to The Sporting News, after he was ejected from his “chauffeur-driven car and crushed when it rolled over him.” He was the first player from the 1984 world champions to expire.
Perhaps because of his unexpected demise, the late pitcher was immortalized in Mexico the following year, though it’s safe to say that Lopez was headed for the Salon de la Fama regardless.
Aurelio Lopez’s obituary in The Sporting News mistakenly states that “Lopez became a hero in his native land primarily because of the seven seasons he spent pitching for the Detroit Tigers.” That is demonstrably not true, as the evidence clearly shows. Despite that mistake, the final paragraph in the TSN obit rings true to Lopez’s character and to his life story.
“`It really wasn’t my idea,’” Lopez told the Detroit Free Press last year [about his election as mayor of Tecamachalco]. “`But the people asked me to do it, and I couldn’t say no. This is my home. You can never forget where you come from.’”
A fitting epitaph for a standup player and a hell of a pitcher in his prime – in two countries.
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Interviews & Communications
Craig, Roger. Telephone interview by author.
Nelson, Rod. E-mail messages to author.
Shea, Stuart. E-mail messages to author.
24-7 Baseball Relief Pitcher reports, 1979-85 (unpublished).
24-7 Baseball/ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia Disabled List-Injury Register (unpublished).