Lopes was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 2nd round of the 1968 MLB January Draft. Previously he had played in High School at La Salle Academy and in college for Iowa Wesleyan College and Washburn University. He had previously been drafted by the San Francisco Giants in the 8th round of the 1967 MLB Draft but did not sign.
He made his Major League debut for the Dodgers on September 22, 1972 against the San Francisco Giants and was 0 for 5 in that game. He recorded his first hit on a single to right field off of the Giants Jim Barr on September 24, 1972. His first home run was hit on May 13, 1973, also against Barr.
Lopes spent nine seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers as their regular second baseman. Along with Steve Garvey (1B), Bill Russell (SS) and Ron Cey (3B), they formed the longest running infield in baseball history, which stayed together for eight and a half seasons.
Used in the leadoff role most of his career, Lopes was one of the most effective base stealers in baseball's modern era. His 557 career stolen bases rank 26th all-time, but his success rate of 83.01% (557 steals in only 671 attempts) ranks 3rd-best all time among players with 400 or more career stolen bases (behind Tim Raines and Willie Wilson). In 1975, Lopes stole 38 consecutive bases without getting caught, breaking a 53-year-old record set by Max Carey. Lopes' record was later broken by Vince Coleman in 1989. Lopes led the National League with 77 steals in 1975, and again with 63 the following season.
A rare blend of speed and power, Lopes hit a career-high 28 home runs in 1979, becoming one of only seven second basemen in NL history to have hit that many home runs in a season (Rogers Hornsby, Davey Johnson, Jeff Kent, Ryne Sandberg, Juan Samuel and Chase Utley are the others). He also hit 17 twice (1978 and 1983), appeared in four consecutive All-Star games from 1978 to 1981, played in one Division Series, six NLCS and four World Series, including as a member of the 1981 World Champion Dodgers. Arguably Lopes' best World Series was against the Yankees in 1978, when he hit three home runs and seven RBIs.
Before the 1982 season, the Dodgers sent Lopes to the Oakland Athletics (for minor leaguer Lance Hudson) to make room for rookie second baseman Steve Sax, breaking up the longest playing infield in history who had been starters since 1974. With Oakland, Lopes teamed with Rickey Henderson to steal 158 bases, setting a new American League record for teammates. Henderson collected 130, Lopes 28.
The Athletics traded him to the Chicago Cubs on August 31, 1984 to complete an earlier deal for Chuck Rainey. He was then traded on July 21, 1986 to the Houston Astros for Frank DiPino. He stole 47 bases at the age of forty and 35 at forty-one, before retiring at the end of the 1987 season.
In a 16-season career, Lopes posted a .263 batting average with 155 home runs and 614 runs batted in in 1,812 games played. He played in four All-Star Games and four World Series.
Following his retirement as a player, Lopes coached first base for the Baltimore Orioles from 1992 to 1994 and the San Diego Padres from 1995 to 1999. Lopes was hired as the Milwaukee Brewers manager in 2000 following Bud Selig's recommendation to hire a manager with a minority background. Tired of the Brewers' continued poor performance and Lopes' media and field antics, club management fired him as manager fifteen games into the 2002 season. He was 144-195 in 3 seasons with the Brewers.
Lopes rejoined the Padres as first base coach from 2003 to 2005 and then held the same position with the Washington Nationals in 2006 and the Philadelphia Phillies from 2007 to 2010.
In each of his Lopes' three seasons with the Phillies, the team led the majors in stolen base percentage, including the best in MLB history in 2007 – 87.9% (138-for-157). They finished second or third in total steals each of those seasons.
On November 22, 2010 he was named the first base coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers, a position he held through the 2015 season. On November 5, 2015, he was named the first base coach of the Washington Nationals.
In 2001 Lopes was the target of controversy following statements he made regarding stolen-base king Rickey Henderson. Managing a game for the Milwaukee Brewers, Lopes was enraged that Henderson had stolen second base in the seventh inning, while Henderson's Padres held a seven-run lead. Lopes said that this violated an unwritten rule against "showing up" the opposing team. Lopes was quoted, "He was going on his ass. We were going to drill him." Henderson withdrew from the game as a result.
Lopes was diagnosed with prostate cancer following a routine physical in February 2008.
He is of Cape Verdean descent.4-time All-Star (1978–1981)
First in the All-Star Game vote (1980)
NL Gold Glove Award (1978)
Twice led NL in stolen bases (1975–76)
His career 557 stolen bases ranks him 24th in All-Time list
Ranks sixth in All-Time list with an 83.01% stolen base success rate
Ranks second in Dodgers history with 413 steals behind Maury Wills (490)
In the 1978 World Series against the Yankees, hit two home runs and drove in five runs in Game One, and added another HR in the sixth and final game.
Stole five bases in the 1981 NLCS
Stole four bases in the 1981 World Series
Set a NLCS record (since broken) with eight career stolen bases
Tied an NL record (since broken) with five stolen bases in a game (1974)
On August 20, 1974, Lopes set a club record (since broken by Shawn Green) with 15 total bases in a Dodgers 18–8 victory against the Cubs at Wrigley Field. Lopes hit three home runs, a double and a single, as Los Angeles totaled 48 bases, also a team record.
In 1975, Lopes set a MLB record by stealing 38 consecutive bases without getting caught, breaking a 53-year-old mark set by Max Carey. Lopes' record was broken by Vince Coleman in 1989.