Tribe catalyst in the ’90s returns for pennant race
CLEVELAND — It was a Lorain County lovefest at Jacobs Field on Friday night and Cleveland’s “new” player — outfielder Kenny Lofton — was the beneficiary of all the warmth.
Lofton, whom the Indians acquired in a trade with the Texas Rangers earlier in the day, is back for his third stint with the Indians. He also played for Cleveland from 1992-96 and from 1998-’01.
“It’s nice to see one of the old crew come back,” Avon Lake’s Rhonda Kimmel said. “He might be in kind of a captain-type situation where he’s showing the younger guys the ropes. Especially in situations like stealing and bunting, which are things we’ve needed to work on.”
Lofton, 40, is the Indians all-time leader in stolen bases with 450. He led the league in steals for five straight seasons between 1992 and 1996, stealing a career-high 75 in 1996.
“Speed on the bases,” said the Avon foursome of Eric Bergen, Gary LaSalla, Bob Olds and Mike Grujean in unison.
“You have several speedsters to lead off now,” Olds said. “Plus you have Barfield at No. 9, so there’s a lot of fast guys in a row there.”
Speed wasn’t the only thing that made the Indians target the veteran.
The club liked the idea of having another left-handed batter in the lineup, knew Lofton’s experience would help on the field and in the clubhouse, and knew the Rangers weren’t asking for too much to get him.
“I like (the trade),” said Steve Kimmel, Rhonda’s husband. “It’s good experience with the bat, maybe change up the lineup a little bit, and they didn’t have to give a whole lot to get him.”
The Rangers received Max Ramirez, the Single-A Kinston catcher the Indians acquired on July 20, 2006, from the Atlanta Braves for closer Bob Wickman.
Age hasn’t seemed to slow down Lofton at the plate. He came to Cleveland batting .303 with 16 doubles, three triples and seven home runs in 84 games with the Rangers. He ranks eighth in the American League with 21 stolen bases.
“He’s hitting the ball well, and that’s what we need,” said Grafton’s Greg Baker. “I’m interested to watch him in the field. I hope he still has his legs. All I know is that I can’t do that stuff, and I’m 42.”
Besides the good deal the Indians got, the speed and the left-handed bat, there’s another reason that Indians fans are so excited to have Lofton back in an Indians uniform — he simply knows how to win.
The 19-year veteran has appeared in the playoffs in 10 of his last 14 seasons and could do it again this season with the Indians.
“He wants a ring,” said Grujean. “He’s an athlete that wants a ring.”
The fans want to see Lofton and the Indians get a ring this season, but Friday night was all about Lofton getting a rousing reception.
The fans cheered as a video of Lofton’s great outfield plays was shown before the game. They roared when his face popped up on the Jumbotron during the presentation of the starting lineup, and they gave him a standing ovation when he snagged Minnesota catcher Joe Mauer’s fly ball in the top of the first. They grew in intensity until Lofton tipped his batting helmet to the crowd before his first at-bat a few minutes later.
“It’ll be a huge reaction (from the crowd) tonight,” Bergen said. “That’s why we got here when we did, so we could see it.”
Contact Shaun Bennett at 329-7137 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
THE LOFTON FILE
Years in majors: 19
– Led American League in stolen bases as an Indian from 1992 to 1996
– Is Indians’ career leader in stolen bases.
– Played for Indians from 1992-96 and 1998-’01
– Career batting average of .300
JASON MILLER / CHRONICLE PHOTOS
Indians outfielder Kenny Lofton doffs his helmet to the fans at Jacobs Field before his first at-bat against the Minnesota Twins on Friday.