by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

LAKELAND, Fla. — This is a story about a baseball player and the best woman golfer in the world, who happens to be his wife. When they were dating, she would be interrupted during dinner for autographs. Embarrassed, she would sign quickly and hope he wouldn’t mind. “Then Ray won the MVP of the World Series,” says Nancy Lopez, laughing, “and they were asking for his autograph more than mine.”

These are the days when nobody gets married, right? When it’s hard to commit, harder still to become parents, brutal if both parents work, deadly if one’s work involves travel, and impossible if both travel all the time?

Welcome then to the impossible marriage, Ray Knight and Nancy Lopez — six years and two daughters and two careers strong. Envious?” says Ray Knight, 35, sitting by his locker in his new home, the Detroit Tiger clubhouse. “Well, I’ll tell you what I’m envious of with Nancy. I envy her natural talent.

“People wouldn’t believe how little she prepares to play. She never works at her game! I have always had to work hard, all the time, just to stay at a certain level. And she just goes out there, no practice, and she’s great.”

That is a frightening thought, considering the level of greatness we are dealing with. Nancy Lopez may be the best female golfer ever. At 31, she is already in the LPGA Hall of Fame. In her first big year on the circuit she won five straight tournaments, setting a record. You can’t count all the money she has won. You can’t count the people who have followed her around in the galleries, shrieking and screaming and applauding. Women’s golf may not be baseball, but if it were, “Nancy would be the best there is. She’d be huge.”

That’s Ray talking. The family that makes Sports Illustrated covers together stays together, you might say. Which brings us to Ray, Nancy’s Knight in shining armor. A veteran infielder, he has already shouldered the dubious honor of replacing Pete Rose with the Cincinnati Reds. He has endured ups and downs with the Houston Astros, some All-Star years and some years where people wondered if he wasn’t going to fall apart, piece by piece. You name the muscle, he has pulled it; groin, quadriceps, hamstring, pectoral. He had surgery five times in four seasons. Suffered vertigo, bone chips, and the worst affliction of all — lack of front-office confidence.

But then came the 1986 season. The New York Mets. A stunning comeback. Knight batted .298, 76 RBIs. And in the World Series? Ho, baby. He hit .391, was voted the most valuable player, and the Mets, of course, won. Nancy was in the seats for all of it. It was high times in the Knight-Lopez/Lopez-Knight corporation.

“After that, wherever we went people recognized him,” says Lopez. But soon they were recognizing him in Baltimore instead of Manhattan. A free agent after his World Series season, Knight turned down a one-year, $800,000 offer from the Mets, went shopping, and could find only a conditional two-year deal with the Orioles that would pay him just $500,000 the first year.

Now, one year later, he is suddenly a Tiger.

Talk about ups and downs.

“It caught me off guard,” admits Knight of the trade that brought him to Detroit last week for pitcher Mark Thurmond. “Although everybody here has been great.”

“It was a shock,” says Lopez. “Usually you’re a little prepared, you hear rumors or something. But Ray just called me at the hotel in Miami that day and said, ‘We’re traded.’ I was about to go grocery shopping. Instead we had to start packing up.” Grocery shopping? Well. Yeah. This is a star-studded marriage with no stars and no studs. Ask Ray Knight and Nancy Lopez their favorite casual restaurant: McDonald’s. Ask them their favorite activity: sitting around. Ask them about a big night out: the movies. Ask them their three biggest priorities, in order, please:

“Our daughters,” says Knight, “priority No. 1, 2 and 3.”

You get the picture.

On Friday afternoon, Knight’s first exhibition game with the Tigers, Nancy Lopez, short, dark-haired, walnut eyes, arrived the way Mrs. Brady might have arrived if Mr. Brady had been a ball player. Daughter Erinn, almost two years old, in her arms, daughter Ashley, 4, tugging at her side. “I have to feed my kids now,” she told an interviewer before the game. “Maybe we could talk later?”

She sat in the Joker Marchant Stadium seats the entire game, even though her husband never played. Lopez makes nearly all of Knight’s home games, altering her golf schedule around baseball season. In the off-season, Knight follows her around the golf circuit, often cheering from the galleries with the rest of the fans. He loves golf. She loves baseball. If Cosmopolitan ever wanted to do a quiz on “Love vs. Career — Who Wins?” it should go to these two.

Of course, you could make a case for fate. Lopez met Knight when he was playing for Cincinnati. She met him through her husband at the time, Tim Melton, a TV sportscaster. Melton then took a job in Houston. Knight, by coincidence, was traded to Houston.

“It was kind of like we were following each other around,” Nancy once admitted. When her marriage collapsed, Knight was there, as a friend, and soon, as her next husband. Says Lopez: “My success at golf had a lot to do with why the first marriage broke up. I think it’s hard when the wife makes a lot more money. There was a little jealousy the first time.

“There’s no jealousy now. Ray (who was also married once before) has his own career and he makes a lot of money himself. He’s got a strong ego, but it’s the type that allows him to say, ‘I’m sorry,’ when he’s done something wrong. A lot of men have a hard time with those words. I do, too. My ego won’t let me say I’m sorry as often as Ray does.” All right. Let’s get to the really important question. Who wins at golf? Answer: Nancy. Except once. One glorious day, two winters ago (this is Ray’s version of the story, in case you can’t tell), his stroke was on, hers a tad off, he came to the 18th green needing the putt, he hit it, he sank it. He won! Score: 72 to 73.

“Did you jump up and down?” Knight is asked. “Did you let out a yell on the 18th green?”

“No,” says the husband who has lost, by his own admission, nearly 200 golf games to his wife, “I didn’t want to gloat.”

Nice. We may be dealing with another big-time sports marriage — remember John and Chris Evert Lloyd, Terry Bradshaw and Jo Jo Starbuck, Babe Didriksen and George Zaharias — but these two are big names in unassuming frames. Lopez, you may recall, is the woman who once hit a spectator with a tee shot, went running up to him, tears welling in her eyes, and heard him mumble to a friend: “At least I’ll get to meet her now.” (She cried through the next two holes, then won the tournament.) Ray Knight was hit twice in the face by baseballs in his minor league career, and the second time he landed in intensive care for four days. He was booed in Cincinnati and Houston and New York, all because injuries kept him from living up to other people’s expectations. Glamorous? Their first date was in a rib place in Florida. They were married in a friend’s back yard.

Dick and Liz, they aren’t.

What they are, it appears, is solid. Both Knight and Lopez come from modest backgrounds, his father a parks department worker, hers an auto repair shop owner. They are both forthright, easy to talk to. They are nuts about their kids. And they like to play. Anything. Golf, tennis, hunting, fishing. “We are best buddies,” says Knight.

They also, for all their nouveau riche wages, are sort of a native American melding: Knight is part Cherokee Indian. Lopez’s parents were Mexican. Between the two of them, they should be allowed to settle anywhere on the continent.

And now they have settled with Detroit. A lot of observers applauded the trade by the Tigers. Knight (.256, 14 home runs last season) has proved his capabilities when he is healthy. And his positions — third and first bases
— are right where the Tigers are hurting. His age is a question mark, sure, but Detroit got him as help, not salvation.

“I’ve moved around a lot in the last four or five years,” says Knight, who began his career, oddly enough, under Sparky Anderson, with the Reds. “I’d like to end my career in a place where I’m appreciated. I know my limitations. I don’t have a lot of home run power, I’m not a base stealer. I’m just a good, solid performer.

“And I’m a winner. I play to win. I don’t know anybody, including Pete Rose, that wants to win more than I do.”

“Including your wife?” he is asked.

He just grins.

Obviously, this is an ’80s marriage. CUTLINE Ray Knight joins wife Nancy Lopez for a round of her game. Lopez is already in the LPGA Hall of Fame. Nancy Lopez, with daughter Ashley, caught husband Ray Knight’s debut as a Tiger Thursday at Lakeland, Fla.


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