The following was first published in the excellent e-book The Hall of the Nearly Great, which you'll enjoy if you like baseball, good sportswriting, independent sportswriting or any combination of the above.
Kenny Lofton was an athlete, a baseball player, and a great basestealer, but most of all he was a puzzle piece. Jigsaw puzzles are arduous brain teasers, a task of fitting together numerous pieces, all oddly shaped and specialized in their duty, and creating an image from the tessellations. No piece in a puzzle is an island; each is meaningless in its autonomous state, but when married together they reveal a picture.
While most do puzzles for leisure, running a baseball organization is an exercise in competitive puzzle-building. There are 30 teams, all trying to complete their puzzle in a limited amount of time. Given the universe of available players from which to choose pieces, each of which possesses unique attributes, they must pick 40 that, when assembled, will reveal a picture of a winning baseball team.
These baseball puzzles are constructed using pitchers and catchers, infielders and outfielders. There are veteran pieces with wear on their corrugated edges, pieces borrowed from other puzzles that just might fit, and pristine pieces with crisp edges making their debut on the board. There are fast pieces, portly pieces, and ones that lack plate discipline. There are home run-hitting pieces, ones that steal bases, and some so frequently broken that they are doused in layers of super glue and left drying on the disabled list.
Completing a baseball puzzle is a more complex task than making the same attempt with a two-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, because the “shapes” in a baseball puzzle are shifting contours of skill and luck—in other words, timing. Finding 25 good players is unlikely, and collecting 25 lucky ones even more so, but a general manager might be able to acquire a sufficient number of each to reveal a familiar image: a locker room covered in plastic-sheeting while players celebrate triumphantly as geysers shoot from bottles of Dom Perignon, leaving everything covered in the sticky splendor of fermented grapes.
A player’s career can take many forms in the puzzle, often evolving over the course of a long career. The best players combine both skill and luck to make a difference in any lineup. For Lofton, his tenure as a puzzle piece had two distinct phases: first as an integral piece in the 1990s rebirth of Cleveland baseball, the second as a veteran journeyman who became less of a focal piece, but a nice player who could fill gaps in an organization’s puzzle on a short-term basis.
Lofton is considered one of the best leadoff hitters of his generation, but his career almost didn’t happen—he became a puzzle piece by accident. If you had asked a young Kenny Lofton what he wanted to be when he grew up, it’s likely he would have said a basketball player. He might also have said firefighter, astronaut, or doctor, but the point is he wouldn’t have said baseball player—until his junior year in college, he’d never played the game. Lofton spent his childhood hours listening to his sneakers squeak on the hardwood floors of East Chicago, Indiana, while he practiced fast breaks and three-pointers. His greatest assets were speed and the ability to anticipate the moves of his opponent. On any given night, Lofton could be seen swiping the ball from his opponent and rushing down the court for an easy layup.
Lofton’s basketball prowess led to a scholarship to the University of Arizona, where he was a backup point guard to Steve Kerr, who’d eventually spend several seasons in the NBA, and the Arizona Wildcats reached the Final Four of the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament in his first year, and the Sweet Sixteen his second, with Lofton setting the season and career school record for steals in the process.
Lofton possessed the sort of speed that lent itself to being athletic. He could have just as easily been a running back or a sprinter. Given the proper training, a man of Lofton’s ability could have run marathons or raced against horses in a sideshow event—he was just that fast. Instead, Lofton saw parallels between stealing balls and stealing bases and decided to try out for the baseball team his junior year at Arizona. “Basketball up and down the court is 94 feet, and that’s what I was used to,” he said. “Baseball, on the base paths is 90 feet, so it was perfect. The distance of me sprinting up and down the court was so perfect for me in baseball.”
Despite Lofton’s obvious athletic abilities, it was no sure thing that he would develop the baseball skills that would keep him in majors for 17 seasons. Scouts were unsure that he’d be able to learn to hit and field at the major league level, coming to the sport so late. The Houston Astros drafted him in the 17th round of the 1988 draft, his late selection an indicator of what talent evaluators thought of his possibilities. Even Lofton himself seemed hesitant to predict success, saying, “I wasn’t really expecting anything, except I expected myself to work hard and it’d pay off for me.” Lofton split his time, playing minor-league baseball in the summer, basketball at Arizona in the fall, both while finishing a degree in radio and television broadcasting.
Looking back on his time in Houston, Lofton said, “At the time they were all about speed. They had the Astrodome, they had the turf, and they wanted me to get on base and steal bases.” Once called up, Lofton made little impact, hitting just .203/.253/.216 with just two stolen bases in 20 games. The Astros decided to stick with Steve Finley, a talented player at a more advanced stage of development who had just been acquired from the Baltimore Orioles that year, and on December 10, 1991, in what would eventually go down as one of baseball’s most lopsided deals, Lofton was traded to the Cleveland Indians for catcher Eddie Taubensee and pitcher Willie Blair.
For the 39 years prior, the Cleveland Indians were a poorly constructed puzzle, no better than one purchased for a quarter at a yard sale. Their puzzle had aging pieces, rogue pieces from other puzzles, missing pieces, and the musty smell of spending too much time in the basement. The organization had been in perpetual need of rebuilding after years as the perennial losers of the American League East.
Since their last World Series appearance in 1954, the organization and Cleveland itself were a mess. The team changed ownership and managers often, with the only thing remaining consistent the underfinanced farm system that left trades as the only avenue for improvement. With a team whose faces were constantly changing, and a record that was laughable year after year, the team became a reminder of the larger chaos surrounding it: Cleveland itself was falling apart.
Manufacturing jobs were disappearing as the Rust Belt economy collapsed, the Cuyahoga River was so polluted that it actually caught fire, and Cleveland Municipal Stadium, where the Indians and Browns played, aptly dubbed the “mistake on the lake,” was a financial drain on a failing city, and was literally falling apart—chunks of concrete came toppling down, to rest at the bottom of Lake Erie as an artificial reef.
The organization itself was a rollercoaster whose ascent up the steep hills of prosperity always ended with violent and thrashing descents to the bottom, a reminder that success was always short-lived and often accidental in Cleveland. The frequent changes in ownership left some hope that the team would regain a pulse, but each transition threatened the possibility that the team might be boxed up and moved somewhere else.
By 1990, owners Richard and David Jacobs were hell-bent on improving the puzzle that remained in shambles. They announced an agreement with the city for a new stadium, which would open in 1995, and developed a plan to bring the organization out of the basement for a sustained period for the first time since the Eisenhower administration. Unlike previous owners, who were merely interested in financing the team at the lowest possible level, selling out, or some combination of both, this plan had a chance of working. The organization cut payroll, made wise decisions when drafting in the farm system, and traded for young players.
The Indians’ key insight, which originated with general manager John Hart, was, having identified these promising young players, signing them to long-term contracts. In this way, the Indians guaranteed youngsters cost certainty in exchange for controlling their rate of salary escalation by bypassing their arbitration years. This tactic is now commonplace in baseball, but it originated with the Indians, and it meant that they could retain their young stars and build around them.
Young and pristine pieces like Charles Nagy, who was pitching successfully in the minors, sluggers like Carlos Baerga and Paul Sorrento, and the rookie Kenny Lofton started the movement, with the addition of young talent in the years that followed in players like Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Albert Belle, Sandy Alomar, Jr., and Omar Vizquel. By 1995, baseball in Cleveland had been reborn; not only did the Indians climb out of the basement with the revamped lineup, but they finished in first place of the American League Central, 30 games ahead of the Kansas City Royals—a feat even more impressive when you consider the season was only 144 games that year—and headed to the playoffs for the first time since 1954.
The more time Lofton spent playing baseball, the better he became, silencing the concerns scouts raised when he was a prospect. Lofton had big shoes to fill—memories of what Joe Carter and Brett Butler had accomplished in the years prior were still fresh in everyone’s minds—but even in his rookie season, his contribution was undeniable. Lofton got on base often, leading the team in on-base percentage (.352), and though he lacked power, Lofton proved he was a good hitter (.285), with good plate discipline (68 walks). Not surprisingly, his most impressive attribute in the leadoff role was his baserunning, stealing 66 bases, an all-time record for an American League rookie.
Lofton on the basepaths was an exciting show worth the price of admission alone. It is often claimed that basestealers are disruptive, but in Lofton’s case it was true to a degree possible only with an elite runner. From the moment Lofton got on base, opponents became flustered. Managers would shift their strategies; pitchers would pace and lose focus while trying to keep him close. Catchers would stretch their throwing arms, and fielders would ready themselves to apply the perfect tag. Each time he reached first base, Lofton engendered reactions that just don’t happen with, say, David Ortiz standing on the bag.
Firmly inside the heads of the defense, Lofton would take his lead, his legs loaded springs waiting to explode in one of two directions: a dive back to first to avoid a pickoff attempt, or, having done his due diligence of a pitcher’s motion, a sprint followed by his signature pop-up slide and hand clap, arriving safely before a tag can be applied. Lofton wasn’t just fast; he was accurate, with an 80 percent career stolen-base percentage, leading the league in stolen bases his first five seasons in the majors.
Not only did Lofton steal often, but his aggressiveness on the basepaths was sometimes the difference-maker for the young team. In Game Six of the 1995 ALCS, the Indians were up one game versus the Mariners in the series, with strikeout master Randy Johnson on the mound. In the eighth inning, the Indians had a 1-0 lead, thanks to a single to left field by Lofton that scored Alvaro Espinoza in the fifth inning. Lofton returned to the plate in the eighth, with pinch-runner Ruben Amaro on second base. Lofton laid down a hard bunt to the third base side of the mound, the ball bouncing and rolling fast on the Kingdome turf. Johnson fielded the ball with his glove and made a good throw to first, but Lofton beat the throw, reaching safely as Amaro advanced to third.
As always, Lofton was a threat to steal; Johnson knew it and catcher Dan Wilson knew it, too. Pacing near the mound, Johnson cringed, losing focus for a moment, knowing that when a player like Kenny Lofton reaches first base and takes his lead towards the next bag just 90 feet away, there is little chance of catching him. They had a right to look flustered: With Omar Vizquel standing in the box, Lofton made his break and was off to second. With Amaro on third, Wilson didn’t even risk a throw.
With Amaro on third and Lofton on second, Johnson, seemingly unnerved, threw a fastball over the outside corner that ricocheted off Wilson’s glove, sending the ball to the backstop and down the first-base line. While Wilson charged after the loose ball, Amaro reached the plate standing up . . . and much to the surprise of everyone, Lofton was right behind him, scoring from second on a passed ball.
In watching the playback, it’s obvious that Lofton didn’t have a good jump, having taken just a modest lead. Lofton was completely stopped, with no momentum carrying him towards third base, but in the instant he realized the ball had gotten by Wilson, he took off like a flash around the basepaths. Evident from the moment his legs started moving, Lofton was headed for the plate. There was no hesitance in his steps, just adrenaline and speed carrying his six-foot and 180-pound frame the 180 feet towards the plate. Though starting 90 feet behind him, Lofton reached the plate just seconds after Amaro, beating the tag to tack on a security run that would cement the organization’s first trip to the World Series since 1954, before losing the Series 4-2 to the Atlanta Braves.
As Lofton developed as a player, his importance to the Indians grew as well. Lofton had his best season in 1996. In 154 games, he led the Indians in batting average (.317), runs scored (132), hits (210), and stole a career-high 75 bases. Playing against the Toronto Blue Jays at home on April 7th, Lofton stole his 255th base, an Indians record which still stands. Sliding head-first into the bag, he jumped to his feet, removed the base from the dirt, and hoisted it above his head as fans chanted “Ken-ny, Ken-ny.”
The cheers at Jacobs Field for Lofton became commonplace as he continued to outplay expectations. Not only was he finding success at the plate, his defense was something to behold: Lofton learned to couple his speed with a deep understanding and mastery of the best routes for tracking the ball. On August 4, 1996, Lofton made a play in the outfield that earned his place on highlight reels for eternity, as though it were routine. Baltimore Oriole B.J. Surhoff hit a fly ball deep into center field that was very clearly heading over the fence, but a swift and acrobatic Kenny Lofton timed his leap perfectly, his shoulders higher than the top of the fence, as he reached over the wall and grabbed the ball. He completed the play humbly, as though the acrobatics and ability were just part of the job.
Somewhere along the way Lofton had fallen in love with Cleveland, and they’d fallen in love with him. Lofton was heartbroken when he was traded away to the Atlanta Braves for outfielders Marquis Grissom and David Justice in March 1997. “I thought I was going to be in Cleveland forever,” he said mournfully. Lofton’s performance was stalled in Atlanta by a groin injury, which limited his playing time and speed; he was uncharacteristically poor on the bases, stealing just 27 bases in 47 attempts. Nonetheless, he hit .333/.409/.428 in 122 games, finishing fourth in the race for the NL batting title and helping Atlanta reach the playoffs.
A free agent following the season, Lofton boomeranged back to Cleveland, the place he considered to be his home.
In his first season back with the Indians, Lofton resumed his place as the face of the organization and its premier player, leading the team in hits (169), triples (six), and stolen bases (54), and Wins Above Replacement. Unfortunately, the season was far from Lofton’s best, with a good deal of his value coming from defense; his batting average of .282 was a career low, though he spiked it with a career-high 87 walks. From this point until the end of his career, consistency would elude Lofton. The .300 averages were mostly a thing of the past, and the high stolen-base totals would vanish.
In his first stint with the Indians, Lofton hit .316/.382/.437 and averaged 65 steals a year. In his second, which lasted through 2001, he hit .280/.367/.416 and stole 31 bases a year. Unsurprisingly, the Indians elected not to re-sign him when he again reached free agency.
Fortunately for Lofton, teams still saw value in the 35-year-old free agent. Lofton was still a commodity, just a different kind: he evolved from the franchise focal piece to a more specialized player that could be used on a temporary basis for a specific purpose, before auditioning to fill another organization’s needs.
Over the final six seasons of his career, Lofton became a pinball that ricocheted to nine different ballclubs. Lofton would add value for a short time, then get swapped for another player with a different skill. From 2001 to 2007, Lofton was the player everyone wanted on their roster for season’s stretch. Due to his time with the Indians and the Braves, Lofton was one of the most experienced stretch-drive and postseason players around, with 48 postseason games in ten different series (albeit with averages of .217/.296/.333 in those games). If he was no longer at his peak, he was still good enough to be an upgrade on marginal starters such as Tsuyoshi Shinjo, Tom Goodwin, and Jason Michaels, all of whom he replaced on contending teams after midseason trades. All three clubs—the Giants, Cubs, and Indians, respectively—reached the postseason after acquiring Lofton.
In all, Lofton would play in ten postseasons with six different teams (an MLB record), including two World Series, though he would never win a ring; it was his fate to be a member of several teams on the brink of greatness that just failed to go all the way. His Arizona Wildcats lost 86-78 to the Oklahoma Sooners in the Final Four, a performance in which he racked up as many fouls—four—as points, rebounds, and assists combined. He was there when the Indians lost the World Series to the Atlanta Braves in 1995, and again in 2002 when the San Francisco Giants lost Game Seven to the Anaheim Angels. Lofton was with the Chicago Cubs in 2003 for the Bartman incident and was a member of the 2004 New York Yankees, who lost to the Boston Red Sox when the latter rebounded to win a historic ALCS in which they had trailed three games to none. Lofton was with the Dodgers in 2006 when they won the NL wild card, only to be swept out of the NLDS by the Mets. A magical run that fell just short of greatness would be the hallmark of Lofton’s career.
Lofton’s final opportunity in the playoffs came in his last season, one last trade returning him to Cleveland. Ironically, or perhaps predictably, the Indians made the playoffs for the first time since he had departed in 2001. Equally predictably, they lost to the Boston Red Sox in the ALCS. In his final home game of the regular season, Lofton waved goodbye to the fans that had always supported him, hanging up his cleats at age 40.
Three years after his last game, Lofton returned to Cleveland. In front of a packed house in the ballpark he’d called home for 11 seasons, he unveiled his own plaque in the team’s Heritage Park just beyond center field before walking to the infield. Waiting for him were his former manager Mike Hargrove and teammates Charles Nagy and Sandy Alomar, Jr. Lofton’s career was decorated with accolades that earned him a place on the podium that day. He was a six-time All-Star, four-time Gold Glove–winner. He still holds the Indians’ club record for stolen bases, the AL record for most stolen bases by a rookie (66), and the major-league record for most postseason stolen bases (34). As he approached the podium, it was not a day to debate whether his career performance would be sufficient to make it to Cooperstown—the weaker second half of his career and frequent changes of team would render that a moot point with the voters—it was a day for Lofton to address the people that mattered the most to him: his fans in Cleveland.
“It’s always good to come back to a city that’s like my second home. Every time I come here, I feel the love.” For the first time in years, chants of “Ken-ny, Ken-ny” filled the park, as Lofton took pause, savoring the moment. For a man who started his career on a whim and embarked on a career with Cleveland as an unknown prospect with what seemed like very limited upside, Lofton broke the mold for what could be accomplished by players whose primary tool was supposed to be speed, developing into a player whose value could not simply be summed up by his nimble legs. For 17 seasons, Lofton made baseball and the running game exciting, elevating himself and his teammates, taking the mystique of Cleveland baseball to new heights from historic lows.
For Kenny Lofton, the cheers were well deserved.