The Greatest Summer Ever: Kenny Lofton

Throughout the 2015 season, Did the Tribe Win Last Night will take a look back at the 1995 Cleveland Indians for the 20th anniversary of their fourth pennant winning season. Included will be historic game recaps, headlining stories and a ranking of the team’s most influential players that truly made 1995 The Greatest Summer Ever. Today looks back at player #4 Kenny Lofton.

Thank God for Craig Biggio.

If it wasn’t for Biggio, the 1995 Indians would not have been what they turned out to be.  The Tribe would not have won 100 games.  They would not have made the playoffs with such ease.  They probably would not have made their run to the World Series.  They certainly would not have articles being written about them almost 20 years later.  Without Craig Biggio, the city of Cleveland surely wouldn’t have had their most exciting sports run in recent memory and we wouldn’t have seen the greatest leadoff hitter of the 90’s flourish right under our noses.

Seriously…thank you Craig Biggio.

So what does Craig Biggio, a Hall of Famer who never played a game for the Indians (or for any other team besides the Houston Astros), have to do with the Indians famous run of success?  Indirectly, he played a huge role.

From the beginning of his career in 1988 through 1991, Biggio was the Astros everyday catcher.  His sweet swing kept him in the Houston lineup daily, only getting a break from the rigors behind the plate with an occasional game played on the Astrodome’s turf outfield.  The hardship that comes along with the catcher’s position took its toll on Biggio’s knees, and the Astros organization knew that a position change was necessary if their best hitter was going to last for the long haul.

The Astros switched Biggio to second base where he dominated the National League for the next decade.  The problem for the 1992 season was—who would take Biggio’s spot behind the plate?

The Astros internal options were not great.  Carl Nichols, Scott Servais and Tony Eusebio were the only catchers in the organization that were Major League ready, and the Astros were (rightfully so) not thrilled with these options.  Because of this, Houston was forced to look outside of their organization and fell in love with a young Cleveland catcher.

Eddie Taubensee was a 22 year old in the Indians organization that was stuck behind the Tribe’s All-Star backstop Sandy Alomar, Jr.  Taubensee showed good ability with his bat in the minors in 1991 and the Astros wanted him to replace Biggio.  With Alomar locked in as the Indians catcher of the present and future, the Tribe traded Taubensee and pitcher Willie Blair for infielder Dave Rohde and a former basketball player named Kenny Lofton.

Rohde’s tenure with the Indians was not memorable.  In the five games that Rohde appeared in a Tribe uniform he went 0-9 with three strikeouts.  The Indians went 0-5 in games that Rohde played.  The basketball player turned out to be a bit better find.

“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’s impact on the Indians was immediate.  Showing the ability to make good contact and run insanely fast, Kenny made the Indians out of spring training in 1992.  Due to his strong spring and the Tribe’s lack of outfield depth, Lofton became the Indians Opening Day starter in centerfield and their leadoff hitter from day one.  His talent shined all season, as Lofton batted an impressive .285 and set an American League rookie record for stolen bases with 66 for the year.  Those 66 thefts led all American League players as well.  For his efforts, Lofton finished second in the American League Rookie of the Year voting behind Milwaukee’s Pat Listach despite Lofton’s clearly better statistics and talent-level.

For an encore in 1993, Lofton’s star shined even brighter as he batted .325, stole a league best 70 bases and won a Gold Glove in centerfield.  In ’94, Kenny kept improving by hitting .349 with 60 steals (tops in the league again) and 12 homeruns in his strike-shortened, All-Star campaign.  By the end of the 1994 season, Lofton was one of baseball’s true superstars and he finished fourth in the American League MVP voting.  Heading into 1995, expectations were high for the young and exciting Indians, and the Tribe was counting on Lofton to continue to ignite their potent offense.

Neither the Indians nor Lofton disappointed, as the Indians ran away with the American League Central Divison and Lofton had another All-Star season.  Kenny batted .310 and again led the AL with 54 stolen bases.  Lofton also showed off his great speed by leading the league in triples—hitting a career high 13.  What is more impressive is that Lofton compiled these numbers in only 118 games, as a nagging injury sidelined Kenny for about a month of the season.  By the end of the ’95 regular season, everybody in Cleveland knew that Lofton was a special player, but it was in the playoffs that Kenny finally got a chance to show the whole world how special he actually was.

The Tribe swept through the Boston Red Sox in the first round of the playoffs and set up a classic showdown with the red-hot Seattle Mariners in the American League Championship Series.  The two teams traded wins in Seattle to start the series and the Indians took two of the three games in Cleveland to set up a potential pennant clincher in game six back at the Kingdome.  Throughout the series, Lofton was a thorn in the Mariners side.  Through five games Kenny had accumulated nine hits, four walks and four steals.  Batting .333 for the series, he was proving to be the most important player on the field.  With the American League pennant on the line in game six, Lofton put on a show like Cleveland had never seen before.

It was October 17 and the Seattle Mariners were facing elimination for an amazing fifth time in the 1995 playoffs.  Up to this point, the M’s were 4-0 in games where a loss would end their season.  The first game was a walloping of the California Angels in a one game playoff to become AL West Champions and the next three were shocking wins against the New York Yankees in a classic American League Division Series where the Yanks once had a two games to none lead.  In three of those four games the M’s turned to their ace pitcher, ’95 AL Cy Young winner Randy Johnson, to keep their season alive.  Johnson started the game against the Angels and game three against the Yankees and was brought in out of the bullpen in the deciding game five of the ALDS.  In all three games that he appeared, Johnson was the winning pitcher.  With their season on the line yet again, Seattle manager Lou Piniella turned the ball over to his giant left hander.  The Indians counterEd Johnson with their own ace, 1995 All-Star Dennis Martinez, and both pitchers were brilliant.

Johnson started out the game in Seattle’s Kingdome by striking out Lofton and then getting Omar Vizquel to ground weakly to third.  Back to back singles by Carlos Baerga and Albert Belle made Johnson sweat a bit in the top of the first, but “The Big Unit” forced an Eddie Murray groundout to end the threat.  Martinez answerEd Johnson by setting the M’s down scoreless in the bottom half of the first.

Neither pitcher allowed a run or really ever got into a jam through the fourth inning.  The most trouble that either pitcher got into was Martinez in the bottom of the third inning, when Luis Sojo led off the inning with a double into the left-centerfield gap.  After getting catcher Dan Wilson out, a grounder to first by Vince Coleman moved Sojo to third with two down.  Future Indian Joey Cora followed Coleman by grounding out to Baerga to end the inning.  The game remained scoreless until the top of the fifth inning.

Johnson was cruising through the Indians lineup having only allowed three hits and striking out five through the first four innings.  Leading off the fifth, Tribe first baseman squared up a Johnson pitch.  Unfortunately for the Tribe, the line drive was hit directly at Cora at second base for the first out.  The next batter, Alvaro Espinoza, grounded the very next pitch to Cora.  Not a player that anyone would ever confuse with a Gold Glove winner, Cora fielded the ball cleanly but then threw it past Tino Martinez at first base.  The ball scooted far enough away on the Kingdome turf to allow Espinoza to end up at second base with only one out.  Tribe catcher Tony Pena batted next and flew out to centerfielder Ken Griffey, Jr., leaving Espy at second with two outs and Lofton coming to the plate.

To this point in the game, Johnson had cooled off Kenny’s hot bat by striking out the Tribe’s catalyst in both of his at bats.  Lofton was sure not to make it three and linEd Johnson’s 2-1 pitch over the infield and into left field for a single.  With two outs, Espinoza was running on contact and was waved home by third base coach Jeff Newman.  Coleman scooped up the ball and fired to the plate, but the throw to the catcher was offline and Espy was safe at the plate.  Lofton motored into second having given his team a 1-0 lead on the unearned run.

The Tribe’s lead remained intact through the seventh inning, with Martinez dodging a bullet on a sixth inning rally by the Mariners.  Both teams went down 1-2-3 in the seventh.  It was in the top of the eighth inning that the Indians put the game and the pennant firmly in their grasp thanks to their speedy centerfielder.

Pena led off the inning by smacking Johnson’s first pitch into the right-center gap.  The 38-year-old hustled into second with a double, giving the Tribe a chance at some insurance.  Tribe manager Mike Hargrove summoned outfielder Ruben Amaro to pinch run for the slow-footed Pena.  With Lofton coming up to the plate and being one of the best bunters in baseball’s recent memory, Hargrove decided to have Kenny lay one down for a sacrifice.  Lofton bunted the second pitch from Johnson down hard on the turf.  The ball bounced just to the third base side of the mound and Johnson fielded the ball cleanly.  “The Big Unit” gave a quick look to third base before firing a fastball over to first.  The ball sizzled into Martinez’s glove a fraction of a second too late, however, as the lightning fast Lofton beat the throw.  Nobody else in baseball would have beat out that bunt for a single and Lofton’s impressive running display was far from over.

With Vizquel at the plate, Lofton took off on the lefthander Johnson’s first motion.  Wilson received the fastball, called a ball by home plate umpire Drew Coble, and fired down to second base.  Lofton slid head first into the bag before Cora could apply the tag.  The Indians now had runners at second and third with nobody out and a great chance to add to their 1-0 lead.  Rattled by Lofton’s blazing speed, Johnson’s next pitch was a ball out of the strike zone as well.  Johnson’s 2-0 pitch would be the pitch that turned Kenny Lofton from an “Indian Great” into an “Indian Legend”.

Johnson fired the 2-0 fastball outside to the right handed batting Vizquel and the ball skipped off of the end of Wilson’s glove and toward the Tribe’s on-deck circle.  Amaro ran home, certain to score the Tribe’s second run, and Lofton sprinted towards third.   As Wilson jogged back to retrieve the ball, Lofton picked up steam and never stopped as he rounded third base.  Kenny was just past the third base dirt cutout on the Kingdome turf when Wilson picked up the ball.  By the time the poor Mariner catcher realized that Lofton was coming around and trying to score, Kenny was nearly on the dirt portion that surrounded home plate.  Wilson fired a strike to Johnson who had come in to cover home and Lofton slid in feet first before the tag was applied.  Lofton bounced to his feet and spun 360° as he pumped his fists in excitement.  “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.”

Amaro was the first to greet his teammate with a high five, followed immediately by the entire Indians dugout that had poured out onto the playing field.  As pumped up as they were, his teammates were never surprised by anything that Kenny Lofton would do on the bases.  “Kenny was a player that always had awareness,” Alomar said.  “He has the speed and he knows himself better than anybody.  Any time he was on base we knew anything could happen.  We were very excited that he was able to score from second base.”

After the dust had settled and Lofton was finally back on the bench with a 3-0 lead, the bewilderEd Johnson worked the count back to full on Vizquel.  Omar followed by launching a fly ball deep to left field that Coleman was able to bring down on the warning track for the first out of the inning.  The Kingdome was just big enough to hold Vizquel’s fly ball, but not quite big enough to hold the next batters as Baerga launched a 2-1 pitch into the cheap seats.  Baerga’s big fly ran Johnson from the ballgame and gave the Tribe a commanding 4-0 lead.  The Seattle crowd, which throughout the entire month of October had been loud, raucous and holding up signs that said “Refuse to Lose” was dead silent.

Julian Tavarez came into the game to pitch for the Indians in the bottom of the eighth inning and set down the Mariners in order.  Mariner relief pitcher Norm Charlton matched Tavarez in the top of the ninth and Hargrove brought in his closer, Jose Mesa to face the M’s in the bottom half.

The Mariners brought up the heart of their order to face Mesa and the four run deficit in the bottom of the ninth, as Griffey, Edgar Martinez and Tino Martinez were due up to face the Tribe stopper.  Griffey bounced Mesa’s 0-1 pitch up the middle where Baerga made a nice play going to his right to field the ball.  Carlos planted and fired over to Perry for the first out of the inning.  Edgar Martinez followed Griffey’s out with one of his own, as the slumping DH was blown away on four pitches by Mesa, striking out swinging for the second out.  The Indians were now just one out away from their first World Series appearance since 1954.

Tino Martinez followed with a four pitch walk, bringing right fielder Jay Buhner to the plate.  Buhner had tormented Tribe pitching during the series, blasting a huge, game-winning homerun in game three back in Cleveland.  Holding a four run lead, Mesa had to challenge Buhner.  The big right hander fired a first pitch fastball down the middle past Buhner for strike one.  The next pitch was another fastball, this time on the outside corner.

Buhner turned over on the ball, swung hard and hit the ball off the end of his bat.  The ball stayed in fair territory as it bounced toward Espinoza at third base.  Espy fielded the ball with a backhand, deep behind third base, with his back foot inches from the white line that separated the turf outfield from the infield.  Espinoza planted hard and fired a long throw across the field to Perry.  The ball sank as it travelled toward first and Perry nearly did the splits as he picked the throw right before it hit the ground.  Buhner was running hard, but the throw beat him by a step. Perry held his glove up, showing the umpire the ball, and when Ken Kaiser signaled “out”, the Indians were American League Champions.

The Tribe dugout and bullpen spilled onto the field to celebrate.  The Indian players and coaches jumped up and down, smiling, laughing and hugging each other as the Seattle fans gave them and their Mariners a standing ovation.  As the disappointed Mariners—led by a sobbing Cora—left the playing field, the Cleveland Indians headed into the visitor’s clubhouse to celebrate the franchise’s third American League pennant.

For Lofton, there were plenty of individual successes to celebrate along with the pennant his team had won.  For the day, Lofton went 2-4 with two singles, an RBI, a run scored and a stolen base, but the box score does nothing to show how amazing Lofton’s evening in Seattle was.  Kenny’s RBI single in the fifth inning was huge, giving the Indians a lead off of the American League’s best starting pitcher.  It was his performance in the eighth inning that showed why he was so special, however.

As stated before, the bunt that Lofton laid down would have been a sacrifice for any other player in baseball and Kenny beat it out for a single.  He then stole second off of a left handed pitcher that throws in the high 90’s and then raced home from second base on a passed ball.  As NBC announcer Bob Costas put it during the telecast that night, “Kenny Lofton made (that) inning.”

Made the game, is more like it.

Lofton’s final line for the ALCS was an impressive .351 batting average with four runs, three RBI, two triples and five steals.  Starting pitcher Orel Hershiser won the ALCS MVP Award for winning two critical games, but Cleveland fans know that the Tribe does not win the ‘95 pennant without the performance of Kenny Lofton.

Kenny continued his hot hitting in the World Series against Atlanta, batting .290 for the series.  Lofton’s biggest game came in game three of the Fall Classic, as he went 3-3 with three walks, a stolen base and three runs scored in the extra inning victory.  His great numbers for the series were unfortunately not enough, however, as the Tribe lost to the Braves in six games.

Kenny Lofton played another All-Star season for the Tribe in 1996, again leading the AL with a career best 75 steals.  During spring training of 1997, Tribe GM John Hart pulled off a stunning trade, sending Lofton and Alan Embree to the Braves for David Justice and Marquis Grissom just before the start of the season.  Lofton had a productive one year stint in Atlanta batting .333 and then signed a four year deal with the Indians as a free agent for the ’98 season.

“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.”

Lofton continued his success out of the leadoff spot through the 2001 season, leading the Indians to the playoffs three times and making the All-Star team twice more.  After the ’01 season, the rebuilding Indians allowed their veteran centerfielder to leave as Lofton signed as a free agent with the Chicago White Sox.

After being dealt midseason in 2002 to the NL Champion Giants, Lofton became perhaps the most successful journeyman player of all time.  Every season that passed from 2002-2007 seemed to have Lofton being dealt at the trade deadline, then signing on with another team during the offseason.  From ’03-’07, Kenny spent time with the Pirates, Cubs, Yankees, Phillies, Dodgers and Rangers before being acquired by the Indians for the third time in a 2007 July trade.

Lofton played left field regularly for the first time in his career for the ’07 Tribe, as manager Eric Wedge elected to keep Grady Sizemore in Kenny’s normal spot in centerfield.  Wedge also chose to keep Sizemore in the leadoff spot in favor of Lofton, and Kenny gave his spark to the lineup out of the seventh spot in the order.  Lofton helped the Tribe get back to the playoffs for the first time since he left in 2001, but the Tribe was eliminated in game seven of the ALCS by the eventual champion Red Sox.

“It was good coming back in ’07 because I just wanted to be a part of the organization again,” Lofton said.  “I did what I had to do but it was tough though because I’m not a left fielder.  I would have rather played centerfield, but with me being a team player, I did what they wanted me to do.  I felt that I’m a better centerfielder 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.”

The Indians granted Lofton free agency following 2007 and Kenny retired, ending a spectacular 17 year career.  Lofton played for 11 teams over those seasons and never played more than one year for any team except the 10 that he played for the Tribe.  Lofton retired with a .299 batting average, 130 homeruns, 383 doubles, and 781 RBIs.  He was a six time All-Star and a four time Gold Glove winner.  His 2,428 hits rank him 112th on baseball’s all-time list, while his 116 triples rank him 106th and his 622 steals rank 15th.

In August of 2010, Lofton was inducted into the Cleveland Indians Hall of Fame.  He has a shot to one day be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown someday as well.  If that day comes, Lofton will don an Indians cap on his plaque.  Always a fan favorite, Lofton was the most exciting player on the most exciting teams that have played in Cleveland in a long, long time, and Kenny Lofton left it all on the field all of the time.

And Tribe fans owe it all to Craig Biggio.

Tomorrow:  Manny Ramirez

Previous Entries:
#26 Dave Winfield
#25 Mark Clark
#24 Wayne Kirby
#23 Alan Embree
#22 Alvaro Espinoza
#21 Herbert Perry
#20 Ken Hill
#19 Jim Poole
#18 Chad Ogea
#17 Sandy Alomar
#16 Tony Pena
#15 Eric Plunk
#14 Paul Sorrento
#13 Paul Assenmacher
#12 Omar Vizquel
#11 Charles Nagy
#10 Orel Hershiser
#9 Julian Tavarez
#8 Eddie Murray
#7 Jim Thome
#6 Dennis Martinez
#5 Carlos Baerga

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