Lofton, Ken 1967—
Ken Lofton 1967—
Professional baseball player
During Game Six of the 1995 American League Championship Series, Kenny Lofton had to hit the dirt to stay out of the way of a 99 mile-per-hour fastball thrown by Randy Johnson, one of the most feared pitchers in baseball. A few innings later, Lofton got the base hit that beat Johnson and clinched the pennant for the Cleveland Indians. In many respects, the drama of that game is symbolic of Lofton’s own life story. By constantly refusing to be intimidated, whether by the harsh circumstances of his youth or by early career setbacks, Lofton has emerged as an exciting baseball superstar.
Bom on May 31, 1967, in East Chicago, Indiana, Lofton spent his entire childhood in a state of desperate poverty. His mother, Annie, was a teenager when he was born. His father did not take part in his upbringing, and neither Lofton nor other family members ever mention the man. Lofton weighed three pounds at birth and was so small his mother was afraid to hold him. Instead, she carried him around on a pillow made by his grandmother, Rosie Person.
Shortly after giving birth to Lofton, his mother returned to high school, leaving the baby in the care of Person. Person’s husband had died in 1960, and since she herself was going blind from glaucoma, Social Security was the family’s only source of income. Person, Lofton, and other family members lived in a cramped apartment in a rough East Chicago neighborhood. Although they were extremely poor, Person somehow always managed to provide enough food for the family. The sad experience of seeing other children with toys and clothes that his family could not afford has had a profound effect on Lofton as an adult. He is very protective of his privacy, but is also generous with charitable organizations—two characteristics that can be traced to the hardship of his youth.
In high school Lofton excelled in both baseball and basketball. It was basketball that provided his escape from the slums. Courted by a number of colleges, Lofton accepted a basketball scholarship to the University of Arizona. At Arizona, he was sixth man on a team that made it to the Final Four of the 1988 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tournament, and he set season and career school records for steals. On a whim, Lofton decided to try out for the baseball team during his
At a Glance…
Bom Kenneth Lofton, May 31, 1967, in East Chicago, IN; grandson of Annie Person. Education: Attended University of Arizona.
University of Arizona basketball team, point guard, reaching the Final Four in the 1988 NCAA tournament; drafted by Houston Astros in 17th round of 1988 amateur draft; minor league player in Astros farm system, 1988-91, member of Houston Astros, 1991; traded to Cleveland Indians, December, 1991, member of Indians, 1992—.
Selected awards: Gold Glove Award, 1993, 1994, 1995; named to American League All-Star Team, 1994, 1995.
Addresses: Home —Tucson, AZ. Office —Cleveland Indians, 2401 Ontario St., Cleveland, OH 44115-4003. Agent— Steven Zucker, 33 N. Dearborn, 19th Floor, Chicago, IL 60602.
junior year. Although he saw limited action on the baseball team, his speed caught the eye of scouts, and he was chosen by the Houston Astros in the 17th round of baseball’s amateur draft that June. He began playing minor league baseball part-time, while still finishing out his college basketball career.
Because he played so little baseball in college, Lofton required several years of training to develop his skills to the major league level. The one area in which he excelled from the start was base stealing, since his pure speed could compensate for any lack of experience or technique. In his first year as a professional baseball player, Lofton batted only. 214 for the Class A Auburn team, but he stole 26 bases in just 48 games. After stealing another 26 bases in his first 34 games at Auburn in 1989, Lofton was promoted to Asheville of the South Atlantic League. At Asheville his batting average improved to .329, and he remained a terror on the base paths, stealing 14 bases in 22 games.
When his college basketball career was over, Lofton was able to concentrate on baseball full-time. He spent the entire 1990 season, his first full season as a pro, at Class A Osceola of the Florida State League. His. 331 batting average was second highest in the league that year. From Osceola, Lofton made the jump to AAA, the highest level of minor league play. He spent most of the 1991 season at Tucson, where he led his team to the Pacific Coast League championship and made the league’s All-Star squad. In September of 1991, the Astros promoted Lofton to the majors. In his very first major league game he had three hits and scored three runs against the Cincinnati Reds.
During the 20 games he played with Houston that year, however, Lofton batted only .203. In addition, the Astros already had a young centerfielder, Steve Finley, with whom they were happy. Unwilling to wait for Lofton to develop his skills further, Houston more or less gave up on him. He was traded to the Cleveland Indians in December of 1991.
The trade to Cleveland turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to Lofton’s career. Under the guidance of Indians first base coach Dave Nelson, Lofton was given intensive training in the finer points of baserunning, bunting, hitting to the opposite field, and fielding. Improving steadily as the 1992 season progressed, Lofton posted a .285 batting average, and his 66 stolen bases were the most ever recorded by an American League rookie. He came in second in the race for American League rookie of the year. Prior to the 1993 season, Lofton signed a new four-year contract with the Indians worth $6.3 million.
Lofton’s career truly blossomed in 1993. In addition to hitting. 325 and leading the majors with 70 stolen bases, he became a defensive star as well, winning the Gold Glove Award as the league’s best defensive centerfielder. As the 1990s continued, the Indians emerged as one of the strongest teams in the American League. Lofton was the catalyst among a talented nucleus of young players that included power-hitting outfielder Albert Belle and second baseman Carlos Baerga. Lofton put up amazing numbers in the strike-shortened 1994 season, batting .349, stealing 60 bases, and capturing another Gold Glove. He also made the American League All-Star Team for the first time during the 1994 season.
Injuries hampered Lofton’s play for much of the 1995 season. He nevertheless managed to lead the league in steals for the fourth straight year, win his third straight Gold Glove, and make his second straight All-Star Game appearance. Most importantly, he helped take the Indians to the World Series for the first time in decades. Although they lost the Series to the Atlanta Braves, Cleveland’s appearance in the postseason brought the talents of Lofton and company to the attention of a much wider audience than ever before. Given the way he guards his personal privacy, this attention was not entirely welcome in Lofton’s case.
Lofton is now generally considered one of the two or three best centerfielders in baseball, and probably the game’s single best lead-off hitter. Some baseball insiders consider him one of the best active players in either league. Regardless of these speculative rankings, Lofton is unquestionably one of baseball’s most entertaining players. As Toronto second baseman Roberto Alomar told the Boston Globe, “He’s one of those players you just sit back and enjoy watching.”
Boston Globe, October 15, 1995, p. 89.
Los Angeles Times, October 19, 1995, p. C1.
New York Times, March 21, 1993, p. S7.
Sporting News, October 30, 1995, p. 11.
Sports Illustrated, May 1, 1995, p. 96.
—Robert R. Jacobson
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