Countdown To Pitchers And Catchers: #7 Kenny Lofton
Today continues our countdown to the start of Indians pitchers and catchers reporting to Goodyear, Arizona on February 20. We’ll count down the days, profiling a former Indian who wore the corresponding number. Some players will be memorable, others just our favorites and some, the only one we could find who wore that number. Today, we chronicle the career of Kenny Lofton.
By Jason Kaminski
When I was a kid growing up in the Cleveland area I always rooted for the hometown teams. It was engrained in me by my father who was (and still is) a diehard Cleveland sports fan. I can remember going to games with my father at the old stadium and watching teams that were not very good, although it never really occurred to me because in my eyes they were heroes. I had favorite players like Cory Snyder, Joe Carter and Julio Franco but none of them became so beloved to me as Kenny Lofton in the 1990’s.
From the very first time I watched Lofton play the game he was my favorite player. I admired the way he hustled, the way he stole bases, dove for fly balls and layed down the most perfect bunts I had ever seen. The “speed game” that he played is what really made him my favorite, to me that was baseball at its most exciting.
When Kenny Lofton was acquired by the Indians from the Houston Astros in 1992 he was a relatively unknown player. If he was known for anything it may have been his Final Four appearance with Arizona in 1988. He was a basketball player first that converted to baseball and luckily for him the scouts took a chance. Lofton struggled at the plate early on but he always had a knack for stealing bases. The thing about the stolen base is that not only do you need speed but you must have great timing and intelligence as well. Lofton had all of that.
Once Lofton came to Cleveland it was evident that the team would play its young core of players a lot so Lofton had a great opportunity to shine. His bat and glove improved immensely as soon as he became a member of the Tribe. In fact, he hit .285 and stole an American League rookie record 66 bases in his first full year. He ended up finishing behind Pat Listach for the Rookie of the Year Award, one that I still feel he deserved to win. It didn’t take long for Lofton to be recognized as one of the league’s premier leadoff hitters and base stealers. He would make his first of six All-Star teams in 1994, he also finished fourth in MVP voting that same year. That was the year of the players’ strike and would mark the beginning of the Jacobs Field era for the Tribe. The great teams of the 90’s were led by Lofton and it seemed as though he would spend his whole career here. In a shocking move in 1997 the team traded Lofton to the Atlanta Braves. I can still remember the devastation I felt when I read the newspaper. The Indians had a great run that season without Lofton, winning the AL championship and coming to within an out of a World Series title. Still, I couldn’t help but miss Lofton’s spark to the team. Clearly the team missed it as well, signing Lofton back during that offseason. As devastated as I was when he left, I was overjoyed after learning of his return.
Lofton would spend four more seasons with the Indians and would end up becoming their all-time leader in stolen bases. After bouncing around the league with eight different teams Lofton made one last triumphant return to the city of Cleveland in 2007. The team was making a run at the playoffs and needed some top of the order help. At the time I was working at Jacobs Field and was lucky enough to be able to see his return. I can remember with pride standing up and cheering for my old favorite, its a moment I will never forget. To this day Lofton is still a fan favorite among Cleveland Indians fans, and for good reason since he has always been extremely gracious and cordial with his fans.
After the 2007 season Lofton decided to end his career and retire at the age of 40. He now helps on the Cleveland coaching staff during Spring Training and owns his own television production company. On August 7, 2010 Kenny Lofton was inducted into the Cleveland Indians Hall of Fame. To coincide with his induction, he was honored with a commemorative bobblehead that immortalized his most famous play; a home run robbing catch that he snagged just above the center field fence against Baltimore on August 4, 1996.
Photo: Associated Press