The Transactional Kenny Lofton

Kenny Lofton played for the Astros, the Braves, the White Sox, the Giants, the Pirates, the Cubs, the Dodgers, and the Rangers. But he was always a Cleveland Indian.
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The Kenny Lofton of my childhood existed in still images. This is not to say he was static figure, unmoving or lumbering. Everybody knows the opposite is true. But Lofton had the quality of looking like he was constantly posing, even while in motion, as if his every movement deserved the attention of a frame, a caption, as if his every breath deserved to live on singularly for generations. I am thinking of the Cleveland Kenny here, diving head first into third base with that toothy smile/grimace of his open for business after a triple; focused absolutely on the point of contact with what will soon become a line drive; considering the meaning of a long fly ball as he glides toward it in the gap.

Lofton appeared in the major leagues a fully formed, historical figure—not only in the sense of being productive (he was very productive) but in the sense of occupying a classic baseball role as speedy, stylish leadoff-hitting outfielder. In his first full season, with the Indians in 1992, Lofton  got on base at a .362 clip, stole 66 bases, and played a beautiful center field. For the next four seasons he did pretty much the exact same thing, leading off for an Indians team full of bashers and mashers and Carlos Baergas. Then, just before the 1997 season, Lofton was traded to Atlanta in one of the biggest blockbusters of the ‘90s: Lofton and reliever Alan Embree for outfielders David Justice and Marquis Grissom.

This is where the Kenny Lofton story stops fitting into the pre-ascribed narrative box. It is where Kenny Lofton stopped becoming a player defined by style and substance and the unspooling of infinite Kodak moments, and became a player defined by transactions. My theory is that Kenny Lofton never wanted to be a player defined by transactions.

The trade was a milestone in the run-up toward our current era in which teams maneuver for years ahead based on impending free agencies. Atlanta needed to clear cap space to try and extend Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux. Cleveland saw Lofton, in a free agent year, as likely to leave anyway—and leave them with a big hole in center field. (Albert Belle had burned them the year before). The deal was also a huge success. The Indians made the World Series without Lofton, only to be defeated by the silly upstart Marlins. Justice was their most productive hitter. In Atlanta, Lofton hit .333 and put up 5.5 Wins Above Replacement despite missing 40 games to injury. The Braves won 101 games and held onto both Glavine and Maddux. The next season, Andruw Jones took over in center field for Atlanta. Marquis Grissom departed for Milwaukee.

And Lofton? He went back to Cleveland, reclaimed his position in center field, and made himself a hero in certain parts of Ohio. After all, Kenny Lofton was, in his heart of hearts, a Cleveland Indian. (He’s still the kind of guy who calls into local sports talk radio to stand up for fans when Chris Perez talks down to them). Signing a long-term contract with a team that traded you less than a year before is not a normal thing. A normal thing would be to feel abandoned, betrayed, and go get your paycheck somewhere else. But Lofton resisted that. Lofton was part of a community. Kenny Lofton did not want to be defined by transactions.

Take his reaction upon getting traded:

“I can’t really think too well right now,” he said. “Maybe I can say I’m disappointed. I’ve done everything they’ve asked me to do in Cleveland, and I thought I would be rewarded. I guess they rewarded me by trading me to Atlanta.”

These are not the words of an unfeeling mercenary. These are the words of a person with a stake in a franchise and a city. So Lofton gets over it. He comes back, and in doing so he seems to be laying the foundation for spending the rest of his career with a team that traded him. He will not be a Mickey Mantle who spent 18 years with one team, but he will be something less pure but somehow more honorable: a player who overcame the inertia of his era to spend his career in a place he loves, playing for fans he understands. And not a glamorous place, either. Cleveland.

Here are a few of the players who have been traded by a team only to re-sign with them the following offseason as a free agent: Rickey Henderson, Shawon Dunston, Geoff Blum, Sidney Ponson, Sandy Alomar Jr., Craig Counsell, Orlando Hernandez, Doug Mirabelli. (Thanks to the folks on Twitter who helped me out with this, especially Colin Wyers). Most of those guys were journeymen, plying their trade for whoever, wherever. Dunston had two stints each with the Cubs, Giants, and Cardinals. Henderson merits a PhD dissertation unto himself, having signed with the A’s on three separate occasions and having been traded by them twice, but nobody is mistaking him for a true hero of Oakland. Counsell had a special connection with Arizona, you could argue. Same might be true for Mirabelli with Boston and Hernandez with New York. But none on the level of Kenny Lofton’s connection with Cleveland.

He spent another four years there. Then, after the 2001 offseason, Cleveland decided to rebuild. The Indians let Lofton, Juan Gonzalez, Roberto Alomar, and Marty Cordova (he was good then!) walk away. Lofton, who had made $8 million the previous season, signed for just one year and $1.025 million to play center field for the White Sox. Unable to overcome the vagaries of his era, he fell into the awkward role of journeyman. In just five seasons, Lofton played on the South Side of Chicago, in San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Wrigleyville, the Bronx, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Arlington.

You might say that Kenny Lofton was sort of like Odysseus, yearning always to get back to Ithaca. He played the part of a captain lost at sea, and he played it well. But really he was always meant to be a king; always at his best in the context of his kingdom. Odysseus made it home where eventually he was mistakenly killed by his own son. Lofton made it home too, for a few brief months at the end of 2007, lighting Cleveland up for one final playoff run. He retired after game seven of the ALCS, having been ingloriously held up at third on a Franklin Gutierrez single in his last time on base, once again a Cleveland Indian, but not the Cleveland Indian he could have been.

Illustration by Mike McGrath of Double Scribble

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