Nancy Lopez is seated in the dining car of a train speeding north
from Georgia, her head swaying gently from side to side as if she had
her eye on a ball that would not stop moving. She looks over at 2
1/2-year-old Ashley, who may or may not be getting a cold from
sleeping with her teddy bear after it fell into the toilet of their
''Before I had children,'' says Lopez, ''I didn't even like to sit
in a car because I got wrinkled. I would always try to lean back
with my legs straight ( out so my clothes would look nice when I got
where I was going.'' She looks down at the shoulder upon which her
other daughter, Erinn, born on May 26, has just dribbled something
strange and indescribable. ''Now I'm never clean.''
Lopez is on the midnight train from Georgia because Erinn is still
too young to fly. After a month at the family home in Albany, she is
excited about seeing her husband, Ray Knight, third baseman for the
New York Mets, and settling back into the routine of a baseball wife.
The difference is that this particular baseball wife may also be the
best woman golfer ever to tee it up, with 34 tour victories and
career earnings of $1,643,379.
Knight, meanwhile, is hitting .279 with nine home runs this season
and is playing a key role in the runaway success of the Mets.
Together they have become one of the most celebrated sports couples
in the history of sweat, equaling or surpassing the fame of Terry
Bradshaw and Jo Jo Starbuck, John and Chris Evert Lloyd, Ralph Kiner
and Nancy Chaffee, Lyudmila Belousova and Oleg Protopopov, Babe
Didrikson and George Zaharias, or Jackie Jensen and Zoe Ann Olsen.
That Knight is descended from Cherokee Indians and Lopez from
Mexicans means their families have been on this continent longer than
just about anyone's. But this most all-American of marriages had its
beginnings in Japan. Knight had gone to Japan in 1978 on a goodwill
tour with the Cincinnati Reds, and Lopez was there to play in a
tournament. That season had been an embarrassing one for Knight, who
had batted just .200 for the Reds as a late- inning defensive
replacement for Pete Rose. Lopez was at the tail end of her
remarkable rookie season, the year in which she won an astonishing
five tournaments in a row.
She and her future husband, Tim Melton, a sportscaster from
Hershey, Pa., had gone to the Reds' ballgame and then stopped by the
clubhouse, where Lopez was introduced to the players by Rose. Knight
remembers that first meeting, although -- typical of the kind of year
he was having -- he did not make much of a hit, surely not enough of
one that Lopez can remember meeting him. ''She didn't know me from
Adam,'' Knight says.
More than the rest of us, athletes lead lives demarcated by their
years -- a good year or a bad year, but always a year with a weight
and shape of its own. Babe Ruth may have been the first to
acknowledge this important truth when, in 1931, he was asked if he
thought it proper for him to be making more money than President
Herbert Hoover. ''Why not?'' Ruth is said to have replied, ''I had a
better year than he did.''
That was the kind of year Nancy Lopez had in 1979. She returned to
the tour still radiant from the honeymoon with Melton, but her
honeymoon with the galleries was just beginning. In one of the most
dominating sports performances in half a century, she won 8 of the
19 tournaments she entered.
While his bride was on tour, Melton was settling into a new job at
a Cincinnati television station and was unable to travel to most of
her tournaments. Knight had gotten to know Melton better after seeing
him again in Cincinnati, and the two of them had become good friends.
Knight found Melton to be ''one of the nicest people in the world,''
and it was just as well, because Knight was soon going to need all
the friends he could get. The year after he met Nancy and Tim,
Knight took over the third-base job that had belonged to Rose, who
had elected to become a free agent and sign with Philadelphia. After
six years in the minors and two as Rose's caddie, Knight was finally
given his first chance to play every day in the majors, and he hit
.318. It took some time for the fans in Cincinnati to warm up to
him. ''Even when I had replaced Pete at the end of games, their
reaction to me had been pretty cold,'' Knight says. ''I'd dive for a
ball as it was going by, and somebody would yell, 'Pete Rose would
have had it.' The fans looked at Pete as their own, so the pressure
was obvious. I had to win them over.''
Knight hadn't yet won Lopez over, either, his relationship with
Melton's wife remaining cordial but distant for the time being. ''Tim
would always say such nice things about Ray, but we weren't really
friends yet,'' Lopez recalls. ''We just kind of admired each other.''
By that time Knight's five- year marriage had crumbled, as had his
batting average. With the divorce he lost custody of his son, Brooks.
Lopez was also beginning to feel a strain on her marriage.
The following year, Melton took a sportscasting job in Houston,
and by a quirk of fate, Knight was traded to the Astros at almost the
same time. ''It was real strange, like we were just kind of following
each other around, almost as if from the very beginning it was meant
to be,'' Lopez says. When Knight arrived in Houston, the first person
to call him for an interview was Melton, and later he invited Knight
over to dinner. ''That was the first time I had been around Nancy
socially,'' Knight says. ''I was impressed by her effervescent
personality. I had never been attracted to her before as a woman
because she was a little heavy.''
Lopez had been attempting to solve most of her personal problems
those days in the kitchen, and ballooned from 5 ft. 4 1/2 in. and
zaftig to a 161-pound parade float. Knight was a little slow to catch
on -- it wasn't until Lopez invited him over for cocoa one day and
said she was thinking of leaving her husband that he had any idea she
was having trouble with her marriage -- but from then on he was
steadfast. ''He was really my only friend during that period when I
was struggling the most,'' Lopez says.
Later that winter Knight was in Pompano Beach, Fla., at the same
time she was, and for the first time he watched her play a round of
golf. Afterward they talked for hours. ''All that time I never felt
guilty, because I wasn't doing anything,'' Knight says. ''I thought I
was just a friend to talk to and a shoulder to cry on. She never told
me she loved me or anything.'' After Lopez separated from Melton, she
and Knight talked constantly on the telephone and in person for five
months without ever having what either one of them considered a date.
''I was really torn because I was seeing Tim every day at the
ballpark,'' Knight says. ''It took a long time for me to know which
way to go. Then one night about three weeks before she was divorced,
we went out to dinner in Houston and that was really the first time I
thought I might be falling in love with her. After that it was just
an explosion. It was really a friendship that turned into a
''Before my divorce was final, I couldn't let on that I was
friends with anybody,'' Lopez says, ''and after it was over I really
didn't have any place to go. Ray wanted me to spend the winter with
him at his parents' house in Georgia. In separate bedrooms, of
course.'' Having just gone through the painful dissolution of one
relationship in public, she was wary of leaping directly into
another, but it did not take Knight long to propose marriage. ''I was
scared,'' she says. ''Very. If it wasn't for his blue eyes, I
wouldn't have done it. But we got along well and we understood each
other's feelings about careers. When I married Ray, it was the fun
thing to do.''
It was not, however, the prudent thing (taxwise) to do. Knight and
Lopez started dating in March of '82 and were married in a friend's
backyard seven + months later. They had intended to delay the wedding
until the start of the new year for all the sensible reasons -- they
wanted time to explore their feelings for each other, time for all
the traditional dewy contemplations of love, time to save a few
thousand bucks on their tax returns. That's right, they were just a
couple of crazy, lovesick kids with an accounting problem. ''When we
got married it cost Ray $50,000,'' Lopez says. ''I couldn't believe
that he did it. I was shocked. I said, 'Was I worth it?' But Ray
didn't think I would live with him unless we were married, and he was
probably right. He just felt like we needed to be married.''
Lopez never worried about ego problems developing, should one of
them have a better year than the other. Knight may have lacked her
natural skills, but he was celebrated enough in his own right to have
played in two All-Star Games. In fact, Lopez considers her husband's
involvement in sports a distinct advantage, especially given her own
insecurities. ''I think if professional athletes were all married to
other professional athletes, it would make for better marriages,''
she says. ''Athletes are better suited to each other. When I married
my first husband, I worried that he was marrying me for my money. I
think any athlete who's successful wonders if someone is marrying
them for their money. With Ray that was obviously never a concern.''
Lopez hadn't even considered the possibility that her marriage to a
ballplayer would be of special interest to the sporting public. ''I
just felt like we were going to be pretty ordinary,'' she says. ''I
loved baseball and Ray loved golf, and we were in our own little
world. We never thought about everything that would come later.''
Lopez's guilt about her long absences from home, as much as the
absences themselves, had contributed to the breakup of her first
marriage. ''After I married Ray, I felt that golf was second,'' she
says. ''He made me happier than golf did. But Ray never pressured me
not to go anywhere to play golf, and I had often felt that pressure
from Tim. There were times when Tim asked me not to leave.'' Rather
than wait to be asked by Melton, Lopez offered to stay home.
''Nancy's a very honest person, but sometimes people will tell you
what they think you want to hear,'' Knight says. ''I don't feel you
can make someone happy if trying to please them makes you miserable.
The difference now is that for two years when we were just friends,
Nancy told me exactly how she felt and what her priorities were.
She can't b.s. me now.
''I allow her to play golf because she has never put it ahead of
me,'' Knight says. ''I've never asked her to come home, and I never
would. Nancy is known the world over because she has such great
talent, and I don't want her to waste it. It never entered my mind as
a problem that she needed to play golf, as long as she loves me, and
as long as it doesn't affect my standing with her. But I married her
as a woman; I didn't marry the LPGA tour.''
The paradox, of course, is that beneath the surface of this
thoroughly modern, have-it-all, two-income union can be heard the
mocking heartbeat of traditional values. ''I was raised in an
old-fashioned home where the woman stayed home and cooked for her
husband,'' Lopez says. ''I enjoy being at home with Ray. I'd rather
be with him than play in a golf tournament.'' That would probably
suit Knight just fine. ''I'd love to have a woman who was there every
day to greet me,'' he says. ''And I'm not saying when the other
players' wives are waiting for them at the ballpark after games there
isn't an emptiness there. I'm also not saying there aren't times when
I wish she was there to cook a meal for me. I grew up with a mother
who was always there for my daddy. In the South the women take care
of the men.''
Lopez sounds less impressed than appalled by some people's
antebellum ideas about women's work. ''Women in Georgia are like
servants to their men, and it took me awhile to get Ray over
expecting that,'' she says. ''I told him I take care of him because I
want to, not because I'm supposed to.'' While she was in Georgia
recently, waiting to have her baby, her husband phoned one night
after a Mets game to get some help making his dinner. ''He called me
up long distance to ask me how to make tuna salad,'' Lopez says,
laughing softly. ''So I gave him all the ingredients, and when I told
him he would need a hard- boiled egg, he asked me how to boil an egg.
After that, I explained the concept behind mayonnaise to him.''
Knight's family was almost inseparable when he was growing up,
which may account for his clannish feelings about family now. His
fiercest devotion was to his father, who started playing baseball
with him when he was two years old. Charlie Knight supervised the
recreational facilities in Albany for the parks department, but he
had once played semipro ball in the South and had even been given a
tryout with the St. Louis Browns. ''I used to look down the road
every afternoon, watching for my daddy to come home,'' Knight says.
''And he would hit ground balls and pitch to me every day of my life.
He always called me his little man because he never wanted to see me
cry, and to this day I never have cried over anything physical.''
Not that he hasn't had plenty of opportunities. Charlie's dream
was that one day his son would play in the major leagues, but Ray was
determined that first he would play high school football. And so for
the only time in his life, he opposed his father, and he wound up
breaking his ankle so badly that he had to have four metal screws
implanted to hold the bone together. He limped all summer, but he
continued to play baseball for his American Legion team.
In the minor leagues Knight twice suffered beaning incidents. The
first broke his right cheekbone and the orbit of his right eye,
impairing his vision enough that his batting average collapsed. And
in the second his left temple was struck, leaving him in intensive
care for four days. ''Every year I didn't get hit in the face,'' he
points out, ''I hit around .280.''
In his past four seasons, Knight has had surgery five times; has
suffered kidney stones; has pulled groin, quadriceps, hamstring and
pectoral muscles. He had 12 cortisone shots in different parts of his
body last year; has had bone chips in his throwing arm; has had
elevated triglycerides and sunken spirits; and as if all of that were
not enough, he has been stricken with recurring bouts of vertigo. The
vertigo first appeared on the same night he pulled a leg muscle while
playing for the Astros in 1984. He woke up that night in the dark
with the room swirling around him and by morning felt ''like I'd been
run over by a truck,'' he says.
Knight played through the vertigo, but his siege of injuries
continued, finally reducing his effectiveness to the point that
Houston manager Bob Lillis felt compelled to bench him. When Lopez
was asked at a golf tournament why her husband had been benched, she
said she believed the manager bore a grudge against him. Lillis read
the remark in the papers and touched off an angry confrontation with
Knight, who stuck up not only for himself but also for his wife. None
of this got Knight his job back, but it did help bring about the
trade that sent him to the Mets late in '84.
''I thought I was the solution to their third-base problem,''
Knight says. ''Then they acquired Howard Johnson from Detroit in the
off-season, and I had never even heard of him. I figured he was a
utility infielder, but then when I got to spring training everybody
was buzzing about HoJo.'' Knight developed a sore arm three weeks
into the spring, underwent surgery to clean the bone chips out of his
elbow and began the season on the disabled list. Even after he came
back, Knight had to platoon with Johnson. ''The hardest part was
sitting in Shea Stadium and hearing people boo him,'' says Lopez.
''But fans don't care if your mother died yesterday. Ray felt
everything was against him, and he was really, really down. People
were being so rotten, yelling obscenities at him, that I finally told
him that when he did play he should put cotton in his ears.''
Knight considered retirement for a while last season, particularly
after it was decided that he would platoon at third base with Johnson
for the rest of the year. ''It crushed me,'' he says. ''I felt as if
I was never going to produce for the Mets because I was never going
to play every day in New York. I'm the type of player that if you
watch me one time, you won't be impressed with me -- I don't have the
big swing, and I don't run particularly well -- but if you see me
play a lot, I'll do some things you like. My strength is playing
every day and that was taken away from me. I was just so hurt and
embarrassed. They say the measure of the man isn't how low you sink,
but how far you bounce back. For a while there I wasn't bouncing too
Lopez was afraid that within a year he would be bouncing off the
walls, and she was able to talk him out of retiring. ''I didn't feel
like Ray was a quitter,'' she says, ''and I was pretty sure he would
be a miserable person to live with if he just dropped out.'' After
another bout of vertigo, Knight went through a 15-day stretch in
which he hit .327. Then he pulled a leg muscle in Atlanta and was out
of the lineup for three more weeks. He finished the season batting
.218, which was also the highest his average reached all year. ''If
you were smart, you could see that whenever I got the chance, I
produced,'' Knight says. ''But Frank Cashen didn't see it. A lot of
people didn't see it.''
Cashen is the Mets' general manager, and he spent a good deal of
his time this spring trying to find a team that wanted an
injury-prone 33-year-old third baseman given to dizzy spells and
encumbered with a $600,000 salary. ''Obviously he hadn't shown us
that much,'' Cashen says. ''We thought about releasing him and
biting the bullet.'' Knight was so clearly out of the Mets' plans
that he was barely mentioned in the team's promotional material.
''When you see a commercial for the Mets or hear one of our jingles
on the radio, you see everybody on our team but me,'' Knight says.
''And it's not like this is something I all of a sudden noticed one
day. For two years it was as if Ray Knight did not exist.''
It had been longer than that since Knight had been able to work
out in the off-season, partly because of all the injuries he had
suffered but also because he had chosen to go on tour with Lopez
instead. ''I used to be in the batting cage in the wintertime, but
for three years I spent January and February in Florida on the golf
tour with Nancy,'' he says. ''I get a major kick out of watching her
play. But this year she was pregnant and didn't go, so I went on a
diet and rebuilt my batting cage in Georgia and Nancy fed the
pitching machine while I hit.''
''I think it had to be especially hard for him because I was
having such a great year and he wasn't,'' says Lopez, who won
$416,472 in five tournaments in 1985. ''But he never stopped backing
me. I think my golf game gave him something to be part of, helped
keep him hanging in there. But he kind of let his baseball slide to
support me, and I felt like Ray really had to get himself back into
what he was doing. We had a big talk in spring training, and I told
him he had to get his concentration on the game. When I came to watch
games he would always look for me in the stands from the on-deck
circle, and I told him I didn't want him to do that anymore, that he
should be concentrating on the pitcher.''
Mets hitting coach Bill Robinson felt Knight's stance caused most
of his problems, but he waited until Knight had bottomed out before
approaching him. ''He was virtually finished,'' Robinson says,
''maybe on the verge of being released.''
Robinson suggested Knight make better use of his strong hands.
''We were playing a night game in Miami, and Ray hit five of the
weakest ground balls to shortstop I've ever seen,'' he says. ''You
could have taken the ball and thrown it harder than he hit it. He
had a very unorthodox stance and I told him the way he was hitting,
the bat was jumping off the ball, rather than the ball jumping off
the bat.'' When Knight altered his stance, the results were apparent
almost immediately. ''He was crushing the ball,'' Robinson says. !
''The very next day in Orlando he hit a tremendous home run into the
wind that he could not have even thought about hitting two days
Knight had a league-leading six home runs in April and briefly led
the league in hitting in June. Most of the time, he has batted eighth
for the Mets, but when the manager decided to rest Darryl Strawberry
and Gary Carter on the same day in June, he batted his everyday third
baseman in the cleanup position. Knight responded by hitting his
first home run in over a month. ''I tried to get cute with Knight and
sneak a fastball by him in his third at bat,'' San Francisco pitcher
Mike Krukow said later, ''and he almost killed somebody in the upper
That marked the end of a week that had begun with the birth of his
second daughter on Monday and continued with a bench-clearing
brawl with the Los Angeles Dodgers on Tuesday -- a scene that was
repeated last week when Knight slugged the Cincinnati Reds' Eric
Davis in a scuffle at third base (page 45) -- an RBI single Wednesday
in a win over the Dodgers, an RBI double to beat Fernando Valenzuela
on Thursday and a sacrifice fly against the Giants on Friday to tie
the game with the bases loaded in the 10th inning. Knight had flown
to Albany to be with Lopez for the birth of their child, but by the
time the baby -- 9-pound, 12-ounce Erinn Shea (not for the stadium)
-- was delivered shortly after noon on May 26, Lopez had already
endured such a long night ''she was actually snoring between
contractions,'' according to the bemused father, whose own litany of
suffering obviously never included 12 straight hours of searing
Lopez was back on the golf course four weeks after giving birth
and expects to be back in competition on Aug. 7. She and Knight will
play a few rounds together to shake the rust off her game, and then
they will softly purr suggestions into one another's ear. He will
call her ''baby'' and ''honey,'' and jokingly tell her she couldn't
chip her way off a rusty boat. She will offer one of those extended
replies ''where you just yell and scream at each other all the way
down the fairway.'' It has always been that way. ''Every time we
play,'' Lopez says, ''we're playing for blood.'' That's why marriage
is such a wonderful game. END
JAMES DRAKE ''It was really a friendship that turned into a romance,'' says Knight of his golfing buddy.
BILL LUSTER Early this month, Lopez expects to rejoin the tour and get back in the swing of things.
CHUCK SOLOMON During spring training, Knight altered his stance and changed the Mets' perception of him.
GEORGE TIEDEMANN Knight only had eyes for Erinn during a visit to Houston's Astroworld. In a Long Island park, Lopez took a backseat to Ashley.