In the late 1980’s, my family moved from Massachusetts to Palo Alto, California. It was a bit of a culture shock for your pal Sully but I found out there were some advantages to living in a big college town. One such advantage was I was able to walk to some quality college sports events.
I saw many baseball games at Sunken Diamond and football games in the stadium where the 49ers beat the Dolphins in the Super Bowl.
My dad also took us to the Maples Pavilion to see Stanford Basketball. One night we saw the Cardinal take on the University of Arizona Wildcats. The team was en route to a Sweet 16 appearance. Their point guard, who was the backup to Steve Kerr the previous year) was Kenny Lofton.
He made an impression on my dad and I and we knew he was going to reach the top of the professional ranks. We just thought it would be in the NBA, not in baseball.
Lofton grew up in Chicago and earned a basketball scholarship to head to Arizona. He joined the baseball team as well in his junior year. The Astros, recognizing his speed and athleticism, picked him in the 17th round of the 1988 draft. He joined the organization after his graduation.
Lofton seemed destined to be a speedy fourth outfielder in the Astros organization. He clearly didn’t have the bat to make it to the show if his first year in the minors was any indication. But in his second season, 1989, he hit .329 and stole 12 bases in 22 games for Asheville before being moved to Auburn where he continued to play well.
In 1990, his bat and his eye popping stolen base totals in the Florida State League made him one of the top prospects in baseball. He skipped AA and went straight to AAA Tuscon for 1991. He batted .308 and added 17 triples to his arsenal. He earned a 20 game call up to Houston. The team was assembling some excellent young talent in 1991 as Craig Biggio was already established and Jeff Bagwell was the Rookie of the Year.
Bagwell was stolen from Boston for middle reliever Larry Andersen. The Astros get high marks for that deal. But they followed it with a horrible trade after the 1991 campaign. Lofton was sent packing to the Indians for a deal involving catcher Eddie Taubensee.
In his new home, Lofton flourished right away. He finished second to Pat Listach in the 1992 Rookie of the Year vote, leading the American League with 66 stolen bases. In fact with Rickey Henderson no longer monopolizing the stolen base title, Lofton made it his own, leading the AL in his first 5 big league seasons.
Lofton became the speedster at the top of the terrifying Cleveland order as the squad finally jumped back into contention. In the strike shortened 1994 season, the first in Jacobs Field, he finished 4th in the MVP vote. By 1995, he was the spark plug for the squad that won 100 games in a shortened season.
With the Indians in the post season for the first time since 1954, Lofton made himself felt throughout October 1995.He batted .458 with an OPS of 1.142 in the ALCS against Seattle, scoring from second on a wild pitch in the Game 6 clincher. He would steal 6 bases in the World Series loss to Atlanta.
1996 got Lofton another Gold Glove and stolen base title and another Division Title for Cleveland, this time falling to Baltimore in the Division Series.
Then in 1997, Lofton and reliever Alan Embree were dealt to Atlanta in a stunning deal that brought Marquis Grissom and David Justice to Cleveland. The Braves, coming off back to back pennants and 4 trips to the World Series since 1991, looked like they were destined to return in 1997.
But Lofton had a downturn in his career. He hit well, but was caught stealing almost as often as he stole. He did not fit in the Atlanta lineup as well, but the Braves made it back to the NLCS anyway. Lofton flopped in both the Division Series and the NLCS before the Marlins stunned the Braves and went to the World Series. (FYI, Marquis Grissom would be the ALCS MVP for the Indians in 1997 but lost the World Series to Florida.)
The Braves didn’t take Lofton back and he returned to Cleveland for the 1998 season and picked up where he left off. He had a solid offensive season back in Jacobs Field and would have won the Division Series MVP against the Red Sox if that award existed.
Lofton stayed with the Indians as their wonderful run wound down with playoff appearances in 1998, 1999 and 2001 but no more pennants. The Indians would blow Division Series leads to the 1999 Red Sox and 2001 Mariners. After 2001, Lofton became a vagabond and one who seemed to show up at some of the biggest heartbreaks in baseball history.
Along with the upset losses in 1995, 1996, 1997, 1999 and the frustrating defeats in 1998 and 2001, Lofton would find himself on the San Francisco Giants who blew a 3-2 World Series lead and a 5-0 lead in a potential clinching game.
After cameos with the White Sox and the Pirates, he was on the Cubs team that blew a 3-1 lead to the Marlins and gave Steve Bartman too much grief.
He left the Cubs for the Yankees in 2004 and was on the squad that blew the 3-0 ALCS lead to the Boston Red Sox. In 2006, he was on a Dodgers team that got swept by the Mets in the Division Series.
In 2007, Lofton was back in Cleveland and on a squad that took a 3-1 ALCS lead over the Red Sox and had CC Sabathia on the mound for a potential clincher.
The Red Sox won Games 5 and 6 and forced a Game 7. In the 7th inning with the Red Sox leading 3-2, Lofton got to second when a Red Sox miscue let an easy fly ball drop.
With one out Franklin Guitierrez singled to left. The speedy Lofton seemed ready to score the tying run easily. The Indians third base coach, losing track of the ball, held him. It had bounced off the side wall and Lofton would have tied the game without a play.
Lofton’s head snapped back in disbelief. The next batter, Casey Blake, grounded into an inning ending double play. The Red Sox bats would come alive and win the game by a deceivingly wide 11-2 final.
It would be Kenny Lofton’s last major league game. He was a solid veteran with a career that deserves Hall of Fame scrutiny. He had some many chances to win multiple World Series titles but oddly walked away with none.
Let’s not end this blog post on a negative note. His highlight was singling home the walk off run to clinch the 2002 NLCS and send Barry Bonds and the Giants to the World Series.
Let’s salute the great career with his greatest moment.
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