Stage 1: "Who is Jack Elam?"
Stage 2: "Get me Jack Elam."
Stage 3: "I want a Jack Elam type."
Stage 4: "I want a younger Jack Elam."
Stage 5: "Who is Jack Elam?"
—Character actor Jack Elam on the stages of his career and the truth of show biz.
The lumbering, ugly Jack Elam was probably the exact opposite of the svelte, grinning Kenny Lofton, but while Elam was the long-lived stalwart of my father’s generation, Lofton’s arc was the long lob of my two-decade childhood. He was always the same smooth, crafty Kenny; I went from begging desperately for coolness to giving up all pretensions to such.
When I moved to my particular Godforsaken Chicago suburb—they’re all Godforsaken, of course, but mine was its own unique flavor of Godforsaken—as a child, I noticed that all the cool kids wore Arizona Wildcats basketball shorts, the ones with “CATS” down the side. (This was the mid-’90s, the Stoudamire/Terry/Bibby years.) I was at a loss, but when I finally got invited to play with the cool third-graders, their older brothers would tell me that these new CATS had nothing on their ‘cats. Elliott, Kerr and Lofton, they said, were better than the punks we worshipped.
They were wrong, of course. Lofton was a wonderful point guard by all counts, good enough to be in the first wave of Chicagolanders who left for the desert, presaging the flight of so many retirees that the University of Illinois now holds their reunions in Phoenix ballrooms. But if he was as good as Stoudamire, Lofton would have worn an embarrassing red raptor, not an embarrassing red person.
I remember telling those older kids, “Lofton’s not a basketball player! He’s a baseballer!” I remember being laughed at.
Of course, I was right. When my dad had time between traveling to ever more absurd places for work—little did he know I’d eventually follow in his footsteps to Manila and to Sarajevo—we would play APBA baseball. It was where I learned the power of the walk.
If you're unaware of APBA, think of it as the hipster alternative to Strat-O-Matic. I think my father liked it because it was licensed to the players' union only, not MLB. This left you with the Junior and Senior Circuits and a box airbrushed of team logos, sure, but you could take advantage not just of Kenny Lofton and Carlos Baerga, but also hot Septembers by the likes of a young Brian Giles. The manila envelopes full of player cards had batting results corresponding to different die roles, which you would locate on a chart so as to find what a “28” meant in terms of different team defense ratings and individual pitcher ratings.
One could say Kenny was my Abbe Faria, teaching valuable lessons when I rolled D-Sixes in my new home’s basement as the 1995 Cleveland Indians. His card was full of walks (14) and singles (seven), with just enough zeroes peeking through the first column to get me into the fun of slapping doubles and triples around the board. He was fast, too: You could tell by the “(F)” next to his defensive position, allowing me to catch a few breaks and extra bases—not that these were so necessary with Joey/Manny/Thome lying in wait. What 8-year-old could resist that lineup? And that bullpen? Stacking up defense and an ace was hopeless against the bloodthirsty Tribe; the only way to counter the paper Indians was to hope for a good few rolls of the dice. Sure enough, though, in the Kohns’ carefully crafted playoff system—more like the the FA Cup than anything Bud Selig would deign to look at—the Indians fell to an improbable run by the Brewers. Even the fake Indians couldn’t catch a break.
As I grew older, unfortunately Lofton did as well. I used to think we had an affinity, because he was from East Chicago and I was from South Bend; it turns out those have less in common than I thought. But his itinerance, moving through nine teams in seven years, began at the same time my own did, and as he came to the age where he had to rely on his wiles, I came to the age where I began to develop some wiles of my own. (In college I was a short rower and a stubborn roommate, so I had to develop an enthusiasm for storytelling and storygathering to make up for shortcomings elsewhere.)
This coincided, as it happened, with the time of my growing enthusiasm for the Reds. The aughts were, unfortunately, a terrible time to be an enthusiast of the Reds. Following Lofton’s team, which was usually in contention, was always a decent enough compromise by the time September came around and I came back from the Sierra Nevadas, Grand Staircase or the Caucasus to scramble to find a team with less than 90 losses to root for.
But then a funny thing happened. Ken Griffey, Jr. aged out of center field, the Reds lacked a leadoff man (among many other things), and Kenny Lofton, the kid I grew up with, was always available for the right price. The places I hung out online, RedsZone and Red Reporter, always mentioned Lofton in trade talks. The guy I grew up so impressed by, the guy I used to impersonate by running up the judo mats in my friend’s basement, was on the verge, it always seemed, coming to my favorite team. It could have finally happened.
It didn’t, of course. Lofton retired in 2007, and since then, the Reds have run out Corey Patterson, Willy Taveras, and the increasingly-belonging-in-this-fact-pattern Drew Stubbs. Because these two sentences are next to each other, the rumors haven’t ceased. You can always get a good rise and some decent pageviews by trawling the interwebs, saying [TEAM X] is interested in bringing Kenny Lofton out of retirement. My first response to the Shin-soo Choo trade was, “They got the wrong Indians centerfielder, and from the wrong decade too.” After all, how old could he have been when Kenny stopped playing for the Rangers? And he had a .380 OBP then, didn’t he?
Unfortunately, time doesn’t work that way. My father is dead; the cards have been gathering dust. It’s been five years since Kenny Lofton turned 40. In four months, it will be 25 years since Lofton’s Final Four appearance with the ‘cats (not the CATS). Time, it seems, makes fools of us all. Not Lofton, though. When I sift through my father’s old boxes and can get past the box scores for fake games, I can find the 1995 Junior Circuit squad from Cleveland, and in the front of the deck is a 28-year-old from East Chicago, column full of 14’s and a (F) in the top left. It's '95 somewhere, even if only on APBA cards and on VHS tapes. Kenny's scowling, digging in, and looking to line something the other way. He and I are both excited to see what comes next.