More than three hours before first pitch on Saturday, Jack López sat alone in the dugout at Fenway Park and took a moment to appreciate his surroundings.
The 28-year-old has a passion for sightseeing. Yet rarely has he seen a vision he considered as glorious as the ballpark that he is now calling home.
As he examined the park’s intricacies and contemplated its history — which now included the area in front of the Red Sox bullpen where López’s first big league hit landed on Friday — the tourist experience got better.
Red Sox legend Pedro Martinez walked onto the field, saw López, and sat to the left of him in the dugout. After the two chatted amiably for several minutes, a bellow from the field announced another arrival: David Ortiz. The slugger introduced himself to López, then sat down to the infielder’s right.
“I’m getting chills just thinking about it. Just coming out here and looking at Fenway, it’s a childhood dream just to be here,” said López. “To just be sitting here, looking at the Green Monster, and then [Martinez and Ortiz] come and sit next to me and just start talking, it’s something unbelievable. It really is.”
The havoc-inducing COVID-19 outbreak that has swept the Sox resulted in López getting a summons on Wednesday for his big league debut. He is not taking it for granted.
López grew up around the big leagues. His father, Juan López, spent the better part of 16 years as a bullpen catcher and then bullpen coach for Dusty Baker. Yet while such an upbringing gave López a familiarity with big league life, it merely added to his hunger to play at the game’s highest level.
The native of Puerto Rico was drafted out of a high school in Florida by the Royals in 2011. He’d spent 10 years in the minors across three organizations, accumulating nearly 900 games and more than 3,500 plate appearances in the minors without a call-up.
“He’s like the infield version of Crash Davis — the guy who’s just been grinding it out,” said Darren Fenster, the acting Red Sox first-base coach.
The way López plays the game — his defense at multiple infield positions, his baseball acumen, his on- and off-field maturity — kept him on the baseball radar.
Both Red Sox manager Alex Cora and quality control coach Ramón Vázquez have a long history with López and his father. Cora made a recruiting call to López on behalf of his alma mater, the University of Miami, and Vázquez often managed against López in winter ball.
That familiarity contributed to López’s comfort in signing a minor league free agent deal with the Sox shortly before the start of spring training. At the time, the team thought it might be able to offer a roster spot for him in big league camp, but that possibility went out the window when Marwin Gonzalez signed with the team.
López remained undeterred. He reported to minor league camp in April and, rather than sulking when he broke camp with Double-A Portland, hit .421 with a 1.213 OPS in five games preceding a quick promotion to Triple-A Worcester. There, he hit .260/.321/.378 — hardly dazzling, yet he showed the attributes of a potentially valuable reserve on a winning team.
That led to an unexpected phone call from Cora in July. López hoped that it might be his callup. Instead, Cora had a proposition: Would López want to play for Team USA in the Olympics?
Team USA recognized the value of a glove-first role player as it assembled its Olympic roster. Cora called to ask López if he’d want to play in the quadrennial event. López, who’d competed for Team Puerto Rico in the qualifying rounds, was puzzled by the proposition.
“It was a weird question, just because I had already gone with Puerto Rico to the [Olympic qualifying tournament]. I’m like, ‘Alex, I’m proud to be Puerto Rican. What should I do?’” recalled López, noting that playing for Team USA would make him ineligible to represent Puerto Rico in future international competition. “[Cora] said, ‘I’m coming at you as a friend. Not too many people can say they’re going to the Olympics.’”
His wife amplified the sentiment.
“The way she put it to me was, ‘Not too many kids can say my dad was in the Olympics,’” said López, who has a 4-year-old and a 10-month-old.
And so, López went to Tokyo and was part of Team USA’s silver medal-winning team — the greatest accomplishment of his baseball career … until this month, when López finally got to make his long-awaited big league debut and, to the delight of his team, collected his first hit.
“It felt like it was one of my kids, to be honest with you,” said Cora. “For him to get that hit, it meant a lot. It meant a lot to a lot of guys in the clubhouse. There’s a lot of guys here that have played with him the last month in Worcester, and it was a real joy [Friday] when he connected and hit that double.”
For López, the joy has been considerable. He lives in central Florida, which meant that his family got to see his big league debut in Tampa Bay this week — where his solid infield defense contributed to two victories in his first two games. He collected his first hit in Friday’s win at Fenway over Cleveland. And on Saturday, his wife and kids flew into Boston to share the Fenway experience.
López is under no illusions. He recognizes that his role is to help stabilize a team that whose middle infield situation was thrown into chaos by the unexpected losses of Xander Bogaerts, Kiké Hernández, and Christian Arroyo.
“I’ve just got to go out and hold the spot for when the big dogs come back,” he said.
Yet as he does just that, López is enjoying an opportunity that he intends to appreciate fully.
“Would I imagine that I would have gotten my call-up in the middle of a pennant race? No. But here I am. And I’m just a little grain of sand here and going to help the team in whichever way I can to help them win,” said López. “I’m just living the childhood dream.”