Lofton, Ramirez Lost Rookie of the Year but Eclipsed Winners

In 1990, Sandy Alomar was named Rookie of the Year. He could have been the first of three Rookie of the Year winners in Cleveland over the next five years. Instead, he was followed by two Indians runners-up – both of whom went on to careers that eclipsed their years’ winners.

Kenny Lofton was a September callup for the Houston Astros in 1991, but in that off-season, the Astros dealt the speedster to the Indians for Eddie Taubensee. The Indians saw a diamond in the rough. Lofton, who’d played basketball for Lute Olson at Arizona, played baseball for the Wildcats as a lark – but he’d made enough an impression in one game that the Astros took a flyer on him in the draft.

He had speed, but wasn’t well-regarded for his bat and by all accounts needed some refining. Working with the Indians coaching staff – particularly first-base coach Davey Nelson – Lofton turned it on in the second half, finishing with a .285 batting average and 66 stolen bases, an American League rookie record and a league-leading amount.

Lofton was one of the few bright spots for a team that went 76-86. However, Baseball America realized what was going on in Cleveland, and named the Indians its Organization of the Year. “To me, he’s the Rookie of the Year,” Nelson said at the time. “I know Pat Listach is having a good year with Milwaukee, but I think Kenny has helped us win more games with his defense in center field than Listach has helped the Brewers at shortstop. And I think he’s a much better base stealer.”

Listach’s story that year was pretty good as well. He was a spring training invitee and wasn’t expected to make the team until Bill Spiers went down with a back injury. Listach became the starting shortstop for the Brewers, who under manager Phil Garner were going to turn on the afterburners.

Listach stole 54 bases for a team that led the league with 256 steals. The Brewers won 92 games and hung tough with the Blue Jays in the American League East until September.

And just as the Brewers and the Indians weren’t close in the standings, the voting for Rookie of the Year wasn’t close either. Listach took 20 of 28 first-place votes for a total of 122 points. Lofton was a distant second with 85 points. “Lofton is such a good player that I thought it would be a lot closer.”

Lofton, recovering from hand surgery, later said he drove to the top of a mountain in Tucson, got out of his car and yelled for everyone to hear. He canceled a conference call with media, later saying he was afraid he’d say something he’d regret.

“I can understand why Kenny is disappointed,” said Indians manager Mike Hargrove. “I personally think Kenny should have won it. And I personally think Kenny is a better player than Listach and I think he’ll prove that as he gets farther into his career.”

Grover was right. For the next four years, Lofton was ensconced in the leadoff spot for the Indians, and leading the league in steals and never dropping below a .310 batting average. The Indians dealt Lofton to Atlanta in 1997, but he came back to the Indians the following year for another four year stint. All told, ten years of Lofton’s 17-year major league career was in Cleveland.

The one thing that eluded Lofton in his time in Cleveland was a World Series ring. He spent the better part of the 2000s bouncing around teams looking for that title. He played in a World Series with San Francisco in 2002, a division winner with the Cubs in 2003 and the Yankees in 2004, and returned to the Indians in 2007 as they made their last push to the most recent American League Central title to date.

Lofton retired at the end of the 2007 season, by which time Listach was already deep into a coaching career. Listach had to have knee surgery after 1993, and played just 16 games in 1994. He was dealt to the Yankees in 1996 (one of the pieces the Brewers got in return was former Indians closer Bob Wickman) and was done as a player in 1997. He’s been a minor-league manager and coach since.

In 1994, the Indians moved from Municipal Stadium to their new home, Jacobs Field. They brought with them a rookie outfielder who could be a defensive and base running liability – but a hitting savant. Manny Ramirez was the 13th overall pick in the 1991 draft, and was a late-season callup in 1993. In 1994, Ramirez hit .269 with 17 home runs and 60 RBI as the Indians’ starting right fielder. One argument against Lofton – he was playing for a miserable team – couldn’t apply to Ramirez. The Indians were in position for at least the American League wild card, and just a game back of the lead in the new American League Central Division, when a strike canceled the remainder of the season.

Also in contention in the Central were the Kansas City Royals, just two games behind the Indians. One of the reasons for their success was Bob Hamelin, who became the team’s DH after George Brett’s retirement. Hamelin, 26 and finally making the big leagues after injuries and a meandering minor league career, hit .282 with 24 home runs – breaking the team rookie record, set by Bo Jackson.

Hamelin, like Listach, was the runaway Rookie of the Year winner, getting 25 of 28 first-place votes. The other three first-place votes didn’t go to Manny Ramirez, who nonetheless finished second. They went to Rusty Greer of the Rangers.

And like Listach, Hamelin was a flash in the pan. The following year, he hit seven home runs and batted .168. He did no better in 1996, and was released. He had one decent year with the Tigers in 1997, and played again in 1998 in the majors. But in 1999, while playing for the Tigers’ Triple-A affiliate in Toledo, he grounded out during a game, came back to the dugout and told the manager, “I’m done.” He was out of baseball for about a decade, and has come back as a hitting instructor and coach.

While Hamelin bounced back and forth between Kansas City and the Royals’ Triple-A affiliate in Omaha, Ramirez tore the cover off the ball for the Indians, batting .308 with 31 home runs and 107 RBI – in the bottom half of the order, since the Indians were so stacked that year.

Ramirez was a vital part of the Indians’ offense through the 2000 season, leading the majors in RBIs with 165 in 1999. But he went to Boston as a free agent, and helped them end their curse by winning World Series in 2004 and 2007 – advancing to the Fall Classic after beating Lofton and the Indians in the ALCS that year.

So Francisco Lindor finishing as runner-up in the American League Rookie of the Year isn’t all bad. If the past is any indication, it might be a blessing in disguise.

Photo: Jed Jacobsohn/Allsport

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