Long Run

Speedster Kenny Lofton debuts on BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot

December 18, 2012
2013 BBWAA Hall of Fame Candidate Kenny Lofton (Brad Mangin/NBHOF Library)

In Kenny Lofton’s first home game with the Cleveland Indians in 1992, the scoreboard at Cleveland Stadium listed his minor league stats as a Houston Astros farmhand in 1991.

Stolen base total: a mind-boggling 168.

It was a typo, as the “168” number was Lofton’s career stolen base total in four years as an Astros minor leaguer. But the fans in Cleveland applauded wildly anyway and speculated about what Lofton’s incredible speed would mean for their team.

Seventeen big league seasons and 622 stolen bases confirmed the fans’ prediction. Now, Lofton makes his debut on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America Hall of Fame ballot.

Lofton is one of 37 players on the 2013 Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot for the Class of 2013 at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

BBWAA members who have at least 10 years of tenure with the organization can vote in the election, and the results will be announced Jan. 9. Any candidate who receives at least 75 percent of all BBWAA votes cast will be enshrined in the Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2013. The Induction Ceremony will be held July 28 in Cooperstown.

Born May 31, 1967 in East Chicago, Ind., grew up a Cubs fan but eventually followed another path to college sports: Basketball. He went to college at the University of Arizona, starring as the backup point guard on the Wildcats’ 1988 team that went to the Final Four. Lofton was the starting point guard the following year when Arizona advanced to the Sweet Sixteen.

During his junior year at Arizona, Lofton tried out for the baseball team – and following the 1988 season he was drafted in the 17th round by the Houston Astros. He played minor league baseball in the Astros system that summer, then completed his basketball eligibility the following year with the Wildcats.

By 1991, Lofton was playing in Triple-A – and he made his big league debut for Houston in September of that year. But the Astros – in need of a catcher – decided they couldn’t pass up a trade with Cleveland when the Indians offered backstop Eddie Taubensee and pitcher Willie Blair for Lofton and infielder Dave Rohde.

Taubensee played only 203 games in three years with the Astros. Lofton became an All-Star.

In 1992, Lofton finished second in the American League Rookie of the Year vote after hitting .285 with 164 hits, 96 runs scored and an AL-rookie record 66 stolen bases. Following that season, Indians general manager John Hart – using then-innovative strategies for small-market teams – signed Lofton to a $6.3 million, four-year deal.

“Kenny is a major part of our plan and future,” Hart said. “His mental and physical toughness are assets that championship players possess.”

Hart targeted Lofton as one of the building blocks of his Indians teams. Cleveland had gone through several disappointing decades following its last World Series appearance in 1954, but Lofton formed a core with Carlos Baerga, Albert Belle and Manny Ramirez that eventually brought the Indians back into contention.

Lofton won the first of four straight Gold Glove Awards in center field in 1993, and led the American League in hits in the strike-shortened 1994 season with 160 – claiming his first All-Star Game berth that season as well.

The following year, the Indians posted a record of 100-44 en route to the American League pennant. Lofton appeared in just 118 games due to a rib cage injury that hounded him for most of the season, but he still stole a league-best 54 bases – his fourth AL stolen base title in a row.

The Indians lost to the Braves in six games in the World Series, but Lofton had been a key player in what was one of the most remarkable turnarounds in baseball history.

“The best way to get revenge against someone is to do your job the next time you face him,” Lofton said.

Lofton led the AL in steals for the fifth and final time in 1996 with a career-best 75, then was shockingly traded to the Braves following that season with Alan Embree for Marquis Grissom and David Justice. Lofton hit .333 in his only season with Atlanta, then returned to Cleveland in 1998 as a free agent.

Over the next four seasons, Lofton averaged 102 runs scored per season for an Indians offense that ranked as one of the best in the game’s history – producing 1,009 runs in 1999, one of just seven teams in history to score at least 1,000 runs in a season. In 2000, Lofton tied a big league record (set by Red Rolfe of the 1939 Yankees) by scoring a run in 18 straight games.

Lofton played for eight different teams between 2002 and 2007, finishing his career with the Indians at the end of the 2007 season. He posted a .299 career batting average with 2,428 hits, 1,528 runs scored and six All-Star Game selections.

His 622 stolen bases rank 15th all time.

Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum