Lofton brings winning attitude to Texas
Veteran outfielder seeks that elusive world championship
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Kenny Lofton belongs in another era, one where bunting, basestealing and getting on base were far more important and a higher priority was placed on manufacturing runs.He belonged in the 1960s and '70s with Lou Brock and Maury Wills or in the 1980s with Rickey Henderson, Vince Coleman and Tim Raines, when the great leadoff hitters were still considered premium players. Even among those pantheons of the basepaths, Lofton would have stood out with his superb blend of offense and defensive prowess. He was a player who not only led the league five times in stolen bases, but also won four Gold Gloves because he could steal hits in center field with the same ease in which he could swipe bases. "Kenny was the kind of guy that made a difference in winning and going to postseason and not winning and not going to the postseason," said Mike Hargrove, who was Lofton's manager with the Cleveland Indians. "He was a real special player. Kenny's speed distorted the game, it really did. "He ran so well that people had to play him out of position to guard against infield hits and bunts, and Kenny had the strength to hit balls over people's heads. Offensively, his speed distorted the game. He's a tremendous athlete and a great, great competitor. He's the only guy I saw score from second base on a wild pitch [vs. the Mariners during the 1995 American League Championship Series]. Kenny did a lot of things I have never seen done before." But the game changed not long after Lofton was traded by the Houston Astros to the Cleveland Indians, and he became the quintessential leadoff catalyst for an Indians offense that was one of the best ever assembled. The players got bigger and stronger, and both fans and baseball executives fell in love with the sluggers who could crush the long ball. They were the ones who were rewarded with the fame, glory and big contracts in the winter. It was a time when a shoe company ran a television ad saying, "Chicks dig the long ball," and now the industry has become painfully and acutely aware of the damage inflicted by the over-zealous infatuation with power. "They don't look at speed and the small guys as much as the big guys who hit the home runs," Lofton said. "Guys who build themselves up to hit home runs, that's who everybody wants. The Hall of Fame is for home run hitters and starting pitchers."
But for a guy who can still steal a base, help manufacture a run or run down a fly ball in the outfield gaps, it has been 1-2 year contracts lately, as he goes from one team to the next. Now, he is with the Rangers on a one-year, $6 million contract.There still must be some who appreciate him because the teams that acquire Lofton are the ones who keep showing up in the playoffs. Among active players, only Derek Jeter, Chipper Jones and Jorge Posada have played in more playoff games in their career than Lofton. Those three have all played with one organization. Lofton, after playing nine of 10 seasons with the Indians from 1992-2001, is now with his eighth organization over the past six years. "They want you," Lofton said. "But once they use you, then they turn around and get rid of you. It drives you a little bit more." He admitted that he thought about becoming a big-time home run hitter but he never succumbed to the temptation. His career high is still 15 with the Indians in 2000. "I've thought about hitting home runs and getting more money but that's not who I am," Lofton said. Who he is showed up during an exhibition game against the San Diego Padres on Friday night at Surprise Stadium. He batted with one out and a runner on third with his team trailing, 2-1. The infield was back and Lofton slapped a grounder right at the shortstop to drive in the tying run. The Rangers eventually won, 4-3. That's why the Rangers wanted him. They understand that a guy who has played in 18 postseason series knows how to play the game right. "I appreciate him," manager Ron Washington said. "That's why I made a phone call in the winter to convince him this is the place to be. The guy is a winner. He makes things happen, and he is a good teammate. I appreciate him a whole lot. "Believe me, a lot of guys in the game of baseball appreciate Kenny Lofton. He wouldn't have been on so many winning teams if they didn't appreciate him. He's just hard on himself." Lofton is now 39, and it's been 12 years since he last led the league in stolen bases. But he hit .301 last year with a .360 on-base percentage and 32 stolen bases, and the Los Angeles Dodgers won their division. He hit .317 with runners in scoring position, boosting his career average in those situations to .304. He will not play every day this season. A left-handed hitter, he hit .214 against lefties last year and it's likely that Marlon Byrd, a right-handed hitter, will see most of the action against left-handers this season. Lofton's best years are obviously behind him, but the Rangers are betting there is enough there to run down balls in center field and provide a different dimension to an offense that has long relied on pure power. Most of all, they are counting on the winning pedigree, and that's why Lofton continues to play the game. He has been to the postseason, and he has been to two World Series, but he has yet to feel the stinging spray of champagne on that final day. That's what drives him the most. "I want to get a ring," Lofton said. "Being a team player, that's what you work for. That's what it's all about."
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.