Thursday, January 28, 2010

Kenny Lofton's Legacy

When I think of Kenny Lofton, it all starts with his walk from the on-deck circle to home plate. It wasn't quite a walk, but more of a strut. Lofton walked up to his bats, seemingly knowing just a bit more than the guy throwing the pitches. Kenny would then torture the pitcher, slapping away every pitch thrown his way that he had no interest in, until that one pitch came his way. No, we aren't talking a guy looking to go yard (although he could). No, Lofton would often send a nubber down the third base side, and by the time the opposing third baseman would get to the ball, Lofton was already crossing the bag for an inning-starting single.

Sure, the Indians of the 1990's are often remembered for their lineup full of thunder. Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Albert Belle often lead the charge with regards to their memorial mammoth home runs. More often than not, the first person to touch home plate after the tape-measure shots was the table-setter himself, the lightning of the line-up, Kenny Lofton.

Today, Kenny Lofton was named as the 2010 inductee to the Cleveland Indians hall-of-fame, and there isn't anyone more deserving than good 'ole #7.

Lofton made a name for himself for wreaking havoc on the basepaths. Lofton is the Indians career stolen base leader with 452, and ended his career 15th all-time with 622. Lofton led the league in stolen bases with the Indians from 1992-1996. His 66 stolen bases in 1992 made him the first rookie since Vince Coleman to lead the league in that category. Of course, flippin' Pat Listach beat him out for rookie of the year. Yeah, Pat Listach. If you're wondering where HE is, he likely cleaned your winshield at the local car-wash just the other day.

To say that Lofton was simply a base-stealer would be more than unfair. He was arguably the best lead-off hitter of his generation, and the only player of his era that was in his class was hall-of-famer Rickey Henderson, who had more power than his Cleveland counterpart.

Lofton also showcased the leather, winning four gold gloves. He had a notoriously weak arm, but made up for it with the best first step in baseball. Lofton lived in the shallow confines of centerfield, and commonly ran down balls that looked like sure-fire triples. He also used a spectacular vertical leap from his basketball playing days under Lute Olsen at Arizona to make several wall-climbing, home-run stealing catches.

How will I remember Kenny? The game everyone's been talking about the past 24 hours: the 1995 ALCS-clinching game six, in which the Indians were facing off against Randy Johnson. Lofton broke open a scoreless tie in the fifth-inning when he singled home Alvaro Esponoza, who had reached second base on an error by bug-eyed Joey Cora. He was saving his best for last. In the eighth inning, Lofton made his signature move for the Tribe.

Tony Pena led off the inning with a double, and Ruben Amaro Jr. pinch-ran for the lumbering catcher. Lofton again waltzed up to the plate against the Big Unit, and managed to not only advance Amaro with a bunt off an RJ fastball, but beat out the throw for a single. Lofton immediately stole second, to put runners on second and third. The Lofton mindbender now complete, Johnson reverted to his pre-Mariner days and threw a bit wild, and the pitch got passed Mariner catcher Dan Wilson. Lofton was off, nearly with the pitch. Amaro scored easily, with Lofton about ten feet behind him to make the score 3-0. Shades of Willie Mays Hays were dancing in our heads, and two batters later, Carlos Baerga touched the long-haired freaky person for a home run. RJ was gone from that game, and it was all thanks to Lofton's brilliance.

Before Omar Y Amigos, there was Kenny's Kids, and there really wasn't a player more beloved in Cleveland than Lofton during the initial playoff run. Lofton's image began to take a bit of a hit after the 1996 season. Albert Belle had taken the money and run, and the Indians, trying to be proactive, offered Lofton a five-year, $44 million deal to stay with the Tribe. His agent turned them down. Rather than lose Lofton, as he did Belle, he dealt the centerfielder to Atlanta. Lofton was shocked. A year later, Lofton would re-sign with the Indians for three-years with a club option for a fourth, for slightly over $30 million. He was glad to be back.

Lofton would leave the Indians in 2001, but return in a trade in 2007 for the playoff run that would leave the Indians a game away from a world series birth. It would be his last as a player.

What is Kenny Lofton's legacy as a Cleveland Indian? He's the guy that was always there. To pitchers, he was always there, messing with their heads. To second basemen and shortstops, he was always there, after stealing a base. To Cleveland fans? He was always there. He's the guy that always found his way home...

Congratulations Kenny, to one of the true greats in Cleveland Indians' history, if not THE greatest of all time.

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