Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 7: Catching Up With Kenny Lofton
Steve Eby | On 28, Mar 2016
As Did The Tribe Win Last Night helps fans count down the days until the Indians retake the field in an official Major League game, we look back at some of the players who wore the Cleveland jersey with pride.
Countdown to Opening Day – 7 days
The Cleveland Indians #7 jersey, however, belongs to Kenny Lofton.
Acquired via trade in December of 1991, Lofton brought little fanfare but plenty of talent with him from the Houston Astros. Lofton was just three years removed from a Final Four run as the sixth man on the Arizona Wildcats basketball team and had just about two years of professional baseball experience when he was dealt to Cleveland, but he proved to be up for anything at that point.
“At that time,” Lofton said, “honestly, I went from one last team to another. The good thing about it was that I knew I was going to have the opportunity to play every day and to be honest, that’s all I looked at. I wanted to play every day. Houston was in last and Cleveland was in last, but I got traded and had the opportunity to play in front of a new city and I was pumped.”
Lofton won the full-time center fielder position in spring training of 1992 as he beat out both Alex Cole and Glenallen Hill who were vying for the job. The decision turned out to be the slam-dunk correct one, as Lofton led the talented young team with a 6.6 WAR and nearly took home the AL Rookie of the Year Award in the process. Lofton seemed to take the level of hope to the next level for the downtrodden franchise, as there had already been some promise with the budding young talents of Carlos Baerga, Sandy Alomar, Albert Belle and Charles Nagy ready to break out.
“We were very special at the time,” Lofton said. “We had some characters that were a little different. We had so many different personalities and so many different guys that went on to do so many different things for Cleveland and other teams. You can look back and say that that team started so many different guys’ careers on an upward path. Once you saw that, you couldn’t forget it.”
Lofton’s career path was turning unforgettable as well. After his rookie record 66 stolen bases in ’92, Lofton batted .325, swiped 70 bags and won his first Gold Glove in 1993. He was an All-Star in 1994 as he batted .349 with 60 steals for the upswing Tribe, who captured the city of Cleveland’s hearts every night with some amazing come-from-behind victories.
“If you looked in the seventh, eighth or ninth innings in the stands, no matter what inning it was and we were down, everyone was still at the ballpark,” Lofton remembered. “Not many people would leave. I think if we had not been able to come back, then after a while people would start to believe we wouldn’t come back. But people believed in it and the whole crowd stayed in the stands. It was awesome because you never knew when something special was going to happen with that team.”
Lofton credits the team’s badass attitude with its flair for the dramatic.
“I think the main thing was how we always persevered. We had so many comeback wins,” Lofton remembered. “We could always come back because we felt we were always going to win. That was the attitude we came to the ballpark with. We stepped across those lines and said, ‘We’re gonna win. I don’t care who we’re up against.’ That was the attitude we had.”
The momentum carried over from the 1994 inaugural season at Jacobs Field to the Tribe’s magical run in 1995. Lofton knew that the ’95 Tribe was good at the time, but as he reflects he sees the specialness of what they were able to accomplish.
“After I got done I stepped back and looked at it (I could see it),” Lofton said, “but at the time the other teams were like, ‘Man, you guys are incredible.’ Once you sit back and try to compare it to other teams…there was no comparison. Now that we sit back and hear people still talk about the ’95 Cleveland team, that’s when it really sinks in.”
The Tribe made it through the postseason and to the World Series for the first time in 41 seasons that October and Lofton’s heroics may have been the biggest reason. Lofton batted .458 with two triples and five steals in the six games, but he put the series to bed in Game Six with the Tribe winning 1-0 in the top of the eighth inning.
“I see it all the time on Twitter and Facebook,” Lofton said of his highlight reel. “People are always putting it out there.”
With nobody out and Ruben Amaro at third base, Lofton was standing at second after a bunt single and a stolen base. A passed ball allowed Amaro to score easily and Lofton flew around third base to score from second as well.
“I’m a player who goes off of instincts and I just react,” Lofton said. “I was running hard through the base. A lot of guys just take it easy and go base to base but I always run hard just to see what happens. Since I was going that fast already and I looked up and my momentum was going that way, it was just instinct and I just reacted.”
His mad dash pushed Lofton’s team to the World Series, but the Tribe ultimately fell in six games to the Atlanta Braves.
Lofton returned for another successful go-round in 1996, but with free agency looming after the ’97 season, Lofton was dealt to the Braves in a shocking trade at the end of spring training.
“I didn’t want to get traded,” Lofton said. “I think at that time, John Hart and those guys jumped the gun. I always stress on communication and if the team would have communicated with me, I never would have gotten traded. They just reacted and I was very upset, but when I got an opportunity to come back, I wanted to be a part of the Cleveland organization and when I got the opportunity to come back, I did.”
After a season in Georgia, Lofton returned to Northeast Ohio as a free agent for the ’98 season. The Tribe continued their run of success throughout the remainder of Lofton’s tenure, but they let their longtime center fielder walk away after 2001. From there, Lofton’s career bounced from city to city.
The “last piece” to several different puzzles, Lofton spent 2002-2007 in nine different cities, appearing in the postseason every year but 2005. He appeared in the World Series for the second time in 2002 with the San Francisco Giants, but fell in seven games to the Anaheim Angels. Lofton’s career came full circle in July 2007 when he was traded back to the Indians for their run to the ALCS.
“It was good coming back in ’07 because I just wanted to be a part of the organization again,” Lofton said.
A center fielder for all but ten non-DH games of his career, Lofton was asked to slide to left field because All-Star Grady Sizemore already had center field occupied.
“I did what I had to do, but it was tough though because I’m not a left fielder,” Lofton said. “I would have rather played center field, but with me being a team player, I did what they wanted me to do. I felt that I’m a better center fielder than I am a left fielder. We made it to [game seven of the American League Championship Series] but it didn’t work out, but I just enjoyed being back in Cleveland.”
Upon the end of the ’07 season, Lofton was let go and never found work in baseball again. Since then, he has turned his attention to another passion of his—film making.
“I live in LA. I have a film production company and I’ve been doing that now,” Lofton said. “I’ve been trying to do some low budget films and I’m trying to do some things in Cleveland, but we’re trying to get some finances and funding to do that.”
Lofton makes several appearances per summer back in the city of Cleveland, coming back for alumni days and other ceremonies that honor the players and teams of the 1990’s. The best part for Lofton is reflecting on the good times that he had with the friends that he made over two decades ago.
“Just seeing and talking to the guys is fun,” Lofton said. “Looking back on all of those memories…some things never get old. Once you have people bring up some stuff you remember just how fun it was. The memories are always in the back of your mind. There are so many things that we can talk about from the field, the clubhouse, the buses, on the planes…there were so many good things that made that team who we were as a group. It was pretty fun and exciting.”
Photo: Getty Images