Kenny Lofton lived a tough life. Born in the slums of East Chicago, Indiana. Just three pounds at birth. He never knew his father; his mother moved to Alabama after her high school graduation. He was raised by his grandmother, who couldn't hold down a job because of her glaucoma. All they had to live on was the Social Security checks she got after her husband's death, 7 years earlier.
Yes, sir, Kenny Lofton had a difficult childhood. But one thing he had to help him out of it was sports.
A gifted athlete, Lofton was an All-State basketball player for Washington High School, and he also pitched and played center field on the underachieving high school squad. Lute Olson, the legendary University of Arizona basketball coach, recruited Lofton to play point guard for the Wildcats, and Lofton readily agreed.
As a freshman, Lofton was the backup point guard (behind Steve Kerr and Craig McMillan) on a Final Four team; his sophomore year, he started at point guard for a team that made it to the Sweet Sixteen. Then, in his junior year, he figured he'd try out for the baseball team. He made the team, though he played in only five games and had just one at-bat.
And based on that, in the 17th round of the 1988 MLB Draft, the Houston Astros selected Kenny Lofton. And that... that is where our story really begins.
Lofton the Astro
Kenny Lofton was extremely athletic, but he was the rawest of prospects. Essentially a high school player, but one who A) hadn't really played in years, and B) had played on a lousy team with inadequate coaching and very little money. On top of that, he would only play during the summer, while he was completing his basketball eligibility at Arizona, and refused to play in any fall leagues. His first year in the minors (the short season Auburn Doubledays of the New York-Penn League,) he hit just .214/.286/.273, albeit in just 48 games.
Yes. He slugged .273.
But what he also did was steal 26 bases in 30 attempts. In 48 games.
See, that's the thing that made Lofton so irresistible, and yet so frustrating. He had such natural athleticism, but so few baseball skills. He could fly across the infield and the basepaths (is he reminding you of anyone yet?)
His second season of professional ball wasn't a lot better. Back in Auburn for an identical number of games, he hit .264/.336/.309, but with 40 steals in 51 attempts. He was promoted to the A-ball team, the Asheville Tourists, where in just 22 games he hit .329/.421/.390 and - oh yeah - stole 14 bases in 20 attempts.
1990 was something of a watershed year for Lofton, as his commitment to Arizona's basketball program ended and he could focus on baseball. For the high-A Osceola Astros that season, he hit .331/.407/.395, second in the league in hitting, and he drew 61 walks in 556 plate appearances (~11%). In addition, you know what else he did? Of course you do; he stole 62 bases in 78 attempts.
The Astros promoted Lofton straight to the Triple-A Tucson Toros for the 1991 season, where he hit a decent .308/.367/.417, but he stole only 40 bases, and got caught stealing 23 times. No matter, he was named a Pacific Coast League All-Star and helped lead the Toros to the PCL Championship. In September, he got called up to the majors, and he never looked back.
Kenny Lofton's big league debut went swimmingly: 3-for-4, a double, and three runs scored. But he finished the season just .203/.253./.216 in 20 games. Worse, Houston already had a center fielder. His name was Steve Finley, and he was pretty good. Though no one might have known in 1991 what wRC+ was, Steve Finley's was 109, and he saved 16 Fielding Runs Above Average, too. Lofton was just, finally, learning how to translate his skills to the game of baseball. But he'd never get a chance to prove it - at least not in Houston.
In December of 1991, the Astros traded Lofton and Dave Rohde to the Cleveland Indians for catcher Eddie Taubensee and righty Willie Blair.
At the time, we can look back at the trade and call it a disaster for the Astros, but at the time, Lofton was a fairly expendable piece. Finley provided good value at center field for the four seasons he spent in Houston and the Astros wanted to move their catcher, Craig Biggio, to second base and they needed a plan, since in-house option Scott Servais had not yet exploded.
Lofton the Indian
See, the thing is, we do have the power of hindsight. And what we know now - that we didn't know then - is that Lofton exploded in his first full major league season. He hit .285/.362/.365, played a very good defense, walked at a 10.4% clip, and compiled 5.8 fWAR, finishing second in the AL Rookie of the Year voting. And that was just the beginning.
Over five seasons with the Indians, Lofton accumulated 27 fWAR, 4 Gold Gloves, 3 All-Star Game appearances, and a Top 5 MVP season. They traded him to the Braves , who promptly defeated the Astros in the playoffs before losing to the Florida Marlins in the ALCS (who would go on to beat the Indians in the World Series, mind you), prior to the 1997 season for David Justice and Marquis Grissom. The following year, Lofton re-signed with Cleveland and played there for the next four seasons.
In all, in his entire tenure with Cleveland, Lofton acquired 42.9 fWAR. Taubensee and Blair combined for 2.4 fWAR for Houston. Taubensee was later traded to Cincinnati for Ross Powell, who had -0.3 fWAR for the Astros.
Kenny Lofton and the Houston Astros never really saw eye-to-eye on what he brought to the table. The makeup of the team - at the time he was on the team - prevented him from getting the opportunity he needed to show off his skills. Additionally, the fact that he was so raw, losing so much of his early development time to college basketball, really injured his standing in the organization.
For his part, Lofton was fearful of being too vocal of his problems. He gave an astounding interview to Sports Illustrated that began with him saying, "There's enough controversy in society. I don't want to be a part of it because controversy starts rumors, and rumors start wrong perceptions."
Here was Rosie Persons' grandson, who knew what it was like to worry about having a steady income, and he didn't want to risk his by speaking up. Timid, they called him. Shy.
All Kenny Lofton ever wanted was a chance to prove himself. To prove that he was better than East Chicago Washington High School. Kenny Lofton was one of only two players to ever play in both the Final Four and the College Baseball World Series. He was a pure athlete who just needed a chance.
Cleveland gave him that chance. Houston did not. And though he'd never say it in so many words, he felt it.
"I know they gave up on me," Lofton told Sports Illustrated's Michael Silver, "and now I'm glad they did. One man's trash is another man's treasure."
But, of course, Lofton wasn't trash to Houston. He was a fringe player who needed playing time, and he was in an organization that couldn't guarantee it to him. Cleveland, on the heels of a 57-105 season and a 7th-place finish in the American League East, could. And three years later, because they took chances on "other men's trash" like Kenny Lofton, the Cleveland Indians were in the World Series.