Aurelio “Senior Smoke” Lopez: The Tigers’ Premier Set Up Man in 1984

Watching how the Detroit Tigers’ Joaquin Benoit has performed so admirably this year as an outstanding set up man for closer Jose Valverde has reminded me of Aurelio Lopez, the hefty right hander from Mexico who set the stage for closer Willie Hernandez, the American League MVP and Cy Young winner for Detroit’s 1984 World Champions.

As the set up man, Benoit never gets the headlines or glory like Valverde despite the fact that since May 20th he has had a 1.36 ERA and played a key role in holding down the Yankees for the Tigers’ playoff victory on Sunday.

The same thing happened in 1984 when Tiger closer Willie Hernandez overshadowed his set up man Aurelio Lopez whose deadly fastball earned him the affectionate nickname “Senior Smoke.”

Like Benoit, I think we took Lopez for granted and simply got used to his reliability.

Prior to the arrival of Hernandez in 1984, Lopez was the primary Tiger closer but without complaint he relinquished his role to the crafty lefthander who had one of the deadliest screwballs in baseball history.

After playing several years in the Mexican League and one year each with the Royals and Cardinals, the Tigers obtained the 30 year old fireballer after the 1978 season when they traded pitcher Bob Sykes and minor leaguer Jack Murphy to St. Louis for Lopez and Jerry Morales. As it turned out it was one of the best trades Tiger GM Bill Lajoie ever made.

In his first year in Detroit in 1979, Lopez became a favorite at Tiger Stadium when Sparky Anderson walked slowly from the dugout, tiptoed over the third base line and raised his right arm signaling for “Senior Smoke” whose belly was not unlike that of Mr. Valverde. That year Lopez finished with a 10-5 win-loss record, a 106 strikeouts, a 2.41 ERA, and was third in the league with 21 saves, the same number he would earn in 1980.

However 1984 is where Lopez really shined for the Tigers as finished with a 10-1 record, 14 saves and 94 strikeouts in 137 innings. Lopez was 1-0 in both the American League Championship Series and the World Series and did not give up an earned run in six innings of work.

Senior Smoke gave one of his best and certainly most important relief appearances in game five of the 1984 Series.

After taking the mound in the fifth inning with the score tied 3-3, two outs, and Greg Nettles on second with the go ahead run, Lopez struck out Kurt Bevacqua swinging. In the sixth and seventh innings Senior Smoke retired the side in order. Lopez earned the victory and Willie Hernandez had the thrill of jumping into the arms of catcher Lance Parrish when the Tigers won the Series.

In his 1984 diary book Bless You Boys, Sparky Anderson had this to say about Lopez.

Without Willie and Aurelio Lopez we would have been so far back we would have solidified. Not only would we have lost the great pitching they did, we would have lost more by having to use our other pitchers so much more. That’s what people overlook in Aurelio Lopez. Lopey has one of those amazing God given gifts for an arm that allows him to pitch long, short, or middle relief—one day a week or several days in a row. Everyday Lopey would give me a wink. “ I can pitch today if you need me,” he’d say. He never minded that Willie was the short man. Lopey did his job and saved a lot of arms in the process.

Following the 1985 season Lopez signed as a free agent with Houston where he finished his major league career in 1987.

After leaving baseball Lopez returned to his hometown of Tecamachalco, Mexico where he was elected mayor of the city.

Sadly, a day after his 44th birthday Lopez was killed in an auto accident after he was thrown from his vehicle.

This postseason when you look at Benoit on the mound, I hope you think of Senor Smoke.

2 replies on “Aurelio “Senior Smoke” Lopez: The Tigers’ Premier Set Up Man in 1984

  • jazzy

    Nice, I have memories of this guy. I never knew he died in 1992 and I really love his nickname to this day. I named my fantasy football team after Him. He leave one heck of a legacy although a quiet one

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