Late Spring Trade of Lofton to Atlanta Changed Tribe’s Future
By Evan Matsumoto
It may have been his shining moment as a baseball player:
Kenny Lofton stepped into the batter’s box during Game 6 of the 1995 installment of the American League Championship Series only to see Seattle Mariners’ ace Randy Johnson returning his gaze. The mid-October air was chilled but alive—the Indians could clinch the series with a win or would be forced into Game 7 with a loss.
Clinging to a 1-0 lead in the eighth inning, Lofton dug in to face Johnson just moments after Johnson gave up a leadoff double to Tony Pena. With a man in scoring position, Lofton laid down a bunt that trickled up the third baseline. Lofton beat the throw to first. Two pitches, a stolen base and a 180-foot dash later, the Tribe was up 4-0.
The rest, as they say, is history. The Indians lost the 1995 World Series to the Atlanta Braves in six games. In 1996, despite claiming the best record in baseball, the Tribe was knocked out of the playoffs in the Division Series.
Just 18 months after his shining moment, Lofton was no longer an Indian. Sixteen years ago yesterday the Indians dealt him to the Atlanta Braves, the season before his impending free agency, he and teammate Alan Embree were dealt for David Justice and Marquis Grissom.
“This is a trade of enormous magnitude for two very, very good franchises,” Indians General Manager John Hart said to the Associated Press in 1997. “We’re talking about franchise-type players.”
Lofton hit .317 in his 1996 outing in Cleveland, with 67 RBIs and a career-high 75 stolen bases. The deal was somewhat defensive for the Indians, however.
“We had to make this trade based on the fact that Kenny Lofton is a free agent at the end of the 1997 season,” Hart said in the same interview with the AP. “We went through it (free agency) last year (1996) with Albert Belle, and Albert left us. We were not prepared to let that happen again.”
The trade was not only disappointing for fans of Lofton but for the man being traded himself. “It’s like somebody stabbing you in the back,” Lofton said. “I don’t know what to say, to be honest with you. I mean, you guys might make some quotes about what I said or whatever. Whatever I said might sound kind of funny, because I don’t know how to think right now. I don’t.”
Losing a player as iconic as Lofton hurt the Indians, but it didn’t take long for David Justice and Marquis Grissom to make up for the hole left by the Lofton trade.
Justice hit .329 during the 1997 season, bolstered by 31 doubles, 33 homers, 101 RBIs and a .418 OBP. Grissom’s contribution was notably smaller, but not insignificant; he hit .267 with 27 doubles, 12 homeruns and 66 RBIs.
The Tribe made their way to their second World Series appearance in three seasons, but this time without any late-inning Lofton heroics. The 1997 Indians lost that Series in seven games to the newly founded Florida Marlins.
After Cleveland lost the World Series—again—it didn’t take long for Lofton to find himself back in Jacobs Field.
Just as planned, Lofton became a free agent in 1998 and, just as the Indians feared a year earlier, he left his Atlanta team for greener pastures, namely, Cleveland. He signed a three-year, $24 million contract.
From 1998-2001, Lofton hit .280, amassed 48 homeruns, 242 RBIs and stole 125 bases. After the 2001 season, though, Lofton departed Cleveland again and took a tour around the league. He made stops in Chicago, in both Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park, Pittsburgh and San Francisco, to name a few, before finally settling back down in Cleveland in 2007.
His last appearance in the regular season was for the Tribe on September 29, 2007. His career ended a few weeks later when Joel Skinner stopped him from scoring and tying the game in the seventh inning of the League Championship against the Boston Red Sox. Cleveland would lose the game a few innings later. In 2010 Lofton was enshrined in the Indians Hall of Fame.
The accolades on his plaque are impressive—452 stolen bases, 975 runs scored, 4 Gold Gloves—but it is the words right under his picture that Cleveland fans will remember.
The words state simply that Lofton was “among the most popular Indians ever as the catalyst atop the lineup of the great Cleveland clubs of the 1990s.”
Photo: Getty Images