Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, Kenny Lofton needed a long and adventuresome trip to discover there's no place like home.
Okay, so technically he's not from Cleveland, but until last season he had spent virtually his entire major-league career in the Indians outfield. He compiled some pretty impressive statistics in Cleveland, most notably five consecutive American League stolen base titles (with an Indians-record 75 in 1996, the year he became the club's all-time steal leader) and a club-record-tying four Gold Glove awards.
Then a week before the 1997 season, the Indians and Atlanta engineered a blockbuster trade, the Braves getting Lofton and pitcher Alan Embree for All-Star outfielders Marquis Grissom and David Justice. It allowed Atlanta to make room in the outfield for Andruw Jones, slice $8-million from its payroll and free up money to re-sign pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine.
Whatever the Braves thought they were getting in Lofton, they apparently didn't get enough, particularly on the basepaths. Although he had a .333 batting average and .409 on-base percentage, respectable numbers for a leadoff batter, he missed 34 games because of injury and, running with a groin pull, stole a career-low 27 bases. He was caught stealing a career-high 20 times. In five years with the Indians he had averaged 65 thefts.
"I think the biggest thing was when we got Kenny, everybody thought we were getting a guy who would steal 80 bases for us," Glavine told Atlanta's Journal and Constitution. "When that didn't happen, people soured on him."
Lofton said he felt out of place with the Braves. "I don't know exactly what happened in Atlanta," he said, "but it never quite worked out. (In Cleveland), people know me. They know my game and I feel more comfortable. Cleveland is the only place for me. I never should have left."
Grissom, having had a less than exemplary year in Cleveland (a .262 average and 22 steals), was shipped to Milwaukee to make room for Lofton and his $24-million, three-year contract. "It's like I was a ghost for a year," Lofton said when the deal was announced. "But now I'm back."
He hasn't torn up the American League since his return, batting .294 (a .360 on-base percentage) with 10 stolen bases (caught twice). But it's a long season. And Indians general manager John Hart thinks Lofton will put up pre-Braves numbers.
"He wanted to come home, and that may be the biggest reason we believe he'll have a big year." Hart said. " I think Kenny really wants to prove something."
The essential Kenny Lofton
BORN: May 31, 1967, East Chicago, Ind.
HEIGHT: 6-0. WEIGHT: 180.
HOW ACQUIRED: Signed three-year, $24-million contract as free agent Dec. 8.
AVG G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB
Atlanta (1997) .333 122 493 90 164 20 6 5 48 27
Career (1991-97) .316 822 3314 641 1047 153 48 44 309 354