SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Last week, the boy who'd spent most of his first 2 1/2 years in hospitals finally saw his father pitch. It was a frightening experience.The crowded concourses, the hawking vendors, the cheers at the crack of the bat -- these were new experiences for Mikael Lopez. He
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Last week, the boy who'd spent most of his first 2 1/2 years in hospitals finally saw his father pitch. It was a frightening experience.
The crowded concourses, the hawking vendors, the cheers at the crack of the bat -- these were new experiences for Mikael Lopez. He is the son of the Brewers' top pitching prospect, Jorge Lopez, coming up on his third birthday now but experiencing a flood of firsts after being released last month from a Cincinnati hospital. It was the most promising stop to date on his family's quest for solutions to Mikael's autoimmune disorder.
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Scottsdale Stadium supplied sensory overload. But Jorge Lopez plays baseball for a living, and Mikael will have to adapt, so he was back at the ballpark for Wednesday's 7-5 loss vs. the Royals to see pop pitch.
"He was mad," Lopez said with a laugh, recounting that first day in Scottsdale. "He was in the hospital a long time. He was panicked with so many people around him.
"It's a process. The only way he's going to learn is seeing everybody."
It's a process.
That mantra has guided the 23-year-old Lopez and his wife, Karla, especially over the past three years as Lopez navigates being a husband, a first-time father and a top pitching prospect, all while learning a second language.
Milwaukee's second-round Draft pick out of high school in Puerto Rico in 2011, he has risen to No. 3 on MLBPipeline.com's list of the top Brewers prospects. Lopez went 12-5 with a 2.26 ERA at Double-A Biloxi last season and was named Southern League Pitcher of the Year, as well as Brewers Minor League Pitcher of the Year. He was among the six Biloxi players to earn a surprise taste of the Majors in September, including Lopez's winning debut at San Diego's Petco Park, and enters this season ticketed for Triple-A Colorado Springs but in the top tier of pitchers poised for a callup should the Brewers find themselves in need.
Mikael, meanwhile, is making progress of his own. He is taking steps and saying a few words, though he mostly communicates with hand gestures and sounds. Doctors found success by treating his illness as they would leukemia, helping Mikael gain enough strength to be released from the hospital in time to travel with Jorge and Karla to Phoenix for Spring Training. The family rented an apartment in neighboring Avondale.
Mikael's doctors helped make arrangements for twice-per-month treatment at Phoenix Children's Hospital, where the family had its most recent appointment Tuesday.
On Wednesday at Surprise Stadium, Mikael was navigating another stadium concourse.
"I'm a social guy, and I like to talk a lot, so we're trying to get him out a lot to see other people," Lopez said. "It's not all easy. Other kids who are 2 years old, they do more, understand more. The only thing he's known is mom and dad. So we have a responsibility."
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Edwin Rodriguez, Lopez's agent, has been a key asset for Lopez as he navigates the complications of the past three years. Lopez also found allies in the organization, including the Class A Advanced Brevard County coaches and teammates who helped organize a golf outing in 2014 to raise funds for Mikael's healthcare. When word of the event reached Martin Maldonado and others in the Major League clubhouse, players donated autographed bats and other equipment for auction.
"When he was in Brevard, I came by a couple of times to talk to him, but it was mostly the guys there giving support and helping him out," said Brewers assistant farm director Eduardo Brizuela. "When you look at him from the day he first signed to where he is today, he's a completely different person."
Brizuela said Lopez's maturation process began before Mikael's birth. There were no significant altercations, Brizuela said, just the usual "bumps in the road" common to many high schoolers drafted in the high rounds.
When Lopez was sent back down to the Dominican Summer League during his second season, something may have clicked.
"I think he realized he had to step up his game a little bit if he was going to be a big leaguer," Brizuela said. "He went down there, did an excellent job, then came up here for instructional league and opened a lot of eyes. Then he had his kid, and it was another wake-up call for him.
"The thing I always notice now is that he always has a smile on his face. No matter what is happening, he always comes to you with a big smile."
Brewers manager Craig Counsell has taken note.
"I think everyone in the organization has always marveled at how he's handled his professional life in light of what he's dealt with in his personal life with his child," Counsell said. "He comes to the field and he's as good or better than anyone else, and you know he has a lot of things going on with his son.
"You trust him. You know he's capable of handling a lot. And you know the motivation is certainly there to keep working."
Lopez is reminded of that motivation every evening when he returns home from Maryvale Baseball Park. He and Mikael watch movies and listen to music. By 8:30 p.m., both are in bed.
"It's good, man," Lopez said. "Life has changed. When I got to the last couple of Spring Trainings, it was hard to sleep. I always fell asleep at [midnight], 1 o'clock, 2 o'clock in the morning.
"Now, I'm with my family every night, relaxed. We're so happy to have him at home. I'm always thinking, 'Be a better person, a better husband, a better father, a better teammate, a better baseball player.'
"I try to do my best all the time."
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AdamMcCalvy, like him on Facebook and listen to his podcast.