A beanpole center fielder who ran like a sprinter and jumped like he wore spring-loaded sneakers, Lofton spent nearly a decade atop the Indians’ lineup. Arguably the game’s best leadoff man since the heyday of Rickey Henderson, the wiry speed merchant sparked the powerful Cleveland offenses that repeatedly laid waste to the rest of the AL Central, setting the tables for such sluggers as Albert Belle, Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, David Justice and Juan Gonzalez.
Lofton grew up in the projects of East Chicago, Indiana and was a four-year starter for the George Washington High School baseball team before taking his athletic talents to the University of Arizona. While he didn’t make the varsity baseball team until his junior year, he was the sixth man for the Wildcats 1988 Final Four basketball team. The following season, he started at point guard. By his graduation he owned the university’s single-season and career record for steals.
Thefts of another sort would prove to be Lofton’s calling card in baseball as well. Originally drafted by the Astros (he went 3 for 4 with three runs scored in his major league debut for Houston on September 14, 1991) Lofton was dealt to the rebuilding Indians in December 1991. He immediately gave long-suffering Tribe fans hope for a brighter future by leading the league for the first of five consecutive seasons with an AL rookie-record 66 swipes in 1992, finishing second to Milwaukee’s Pat Listach for Rookie of the Year honors. He won recognition for his spectacular defense as well, claiming the first of four straight Gold Gloves in 1993. Lofton’s phenomenal speed helped him cover vast tracts of outfield turf, and he routinely left frustrated batters and disbelieving fans alike with their jaws dangling at their knees when he hurled his 6’0″, 190-pound frame high above outfield walls to snatch would-be home runs out of the sky.
A devastating weapon at the plate, on the basepaths and in the field, Lofton was a prime mover in the dramatic baseball renaissance that transformed the Indians all but overnight from perennial doormats into an explosive team filled with young stars. During the strike-shortened 1994 season, when he finished fourth in AL MVP voting, Lofton batted .349, ranked second in the league with 105 runs scored and notched an AL-high 160 hits and 60 steals in only 112 games.
With Lofton igniting the club’s intimidating lineup in 1995, the Indians reached the World Series for the first time since 1954. Lofton batted just .200 in the Tribe’s six-game loss to Atlanta, but did swipe six bases in seven attempts. More of the same followed in 1996 as Lofton (setting career highs with 132 runs, 210 hits and 75 steals) earned his third straight All-Star selection, and Cleveland won the second of five straight AL Central titles.
In the spring of 1997 Lofton rejected a five-year, $44 million contract offer from Cleveland. Worried that they would lose him to free agency without compensation, the Indians pulled off a blockbuster deal with the Braves in March 1997, sending Lofton and reliever Alan Embree to Atlanta in exchange for outfielders David Justice and Marquis Grissom.
While Lofton batted .333 in his only season with the Braves, neither he nor the club was happy with the marriage of convenience. Manager Bobby Cox was reportedly displeased with his new center fielder’s shaky outfield instincts, believing that Lofton relied upon his fantastic speed and athleticism to outrun his mistakes. In Atlanta a pulled groin not only forced him to the disabled list for six weeks and limited him to 27 steals against a league-high 20 times caught stealing, but also diminished his range in the field. For his part, Lofton never fit in as he had in Cleveland, and when the Braves bowed out to the upstart Marlins in the NLCS, he watched from home as his former team reached the World Series without him.
After a one-year exile, Lofton returned to Cleveland, signing a four-year free-agent deal in December 1997. “I never thought this could happen,” he said after re-joining the Indians. “But I’m glad to be back where I belong. Everybody knows I belong here. I was a ghost for a year. Now I’m back.”
Lofton quickly regained his status as one of the AL’s top leadoff men, although nagging hamstring injuries deadened his running game the second half of 1999, a season when he totaled a career-low 25 steals. The Indians, meanwhile, added two more division titles to their trophy case only to get knocked out of the playoffs by the Yankees in 1998 and the Red Sox in 1999. In the fifth and decisive game of the Tribe’s Division Series battle with Boston, Lofton dislocated his left (throwing) shoulder and tore his rotator cuff while sliding headfirst into first base. The injury was originally supposed to sideline him until the All-Star break, but Lofton made a remarkable recovery to put himself in the Indians’ lineup on Opening Day at Baltimore’s Camden Yards.
Although his average slipped to a career-low .278 in 2000, Lofton set career highs with 15 home runs and 73 RBIs. From August 15th through September 3rd, he scored a run in 18 consecutive games to tie Red Rolfe’s 1939 major-league record. After the season the Indians picked up their 2001 option on the franchise’s all-time stolen base leader.