Friday, January 13, 2012

The Glory of Their Time, Chapter 9: Kenny Lofton

1996 Studio "Stained Glass" #12 Kenny Lofton

Kenny Lofton is a prime "Glory of Their Time" candidate for two reasons:

1) He's one of my favorite recent players.

2) He was on a lot of teams, which means more cards to show. And when I say a lot of teams, I mean a lot of teams.

Many of my favorite players have some sort of back story attached to them, but I'm not exactly sure how I came to like Lofton so much. Maybe it's got something to do with that great "Stained Glass" card at the top of the post.

Lofton's career is definitely interesting to track, although I had to scan more cards than I've ever had to in one sitting because of all the different teams he played for.

Without further ado, here's Kenny Lofton, one of the glories of our time.

1991 Bowman #565 Kenny Lofton RC

The story of Kenny Lofton's career can be traced back to his college days in Arizona. However, Lofton was known more for his talents in basketball than baseball at college.

He was part of the 1988 Arizona Wildcats college basketball team that made it to the Final Four, serving as the backup to point guard and future Chicago Bulls star Steve Kerr.

He didn't even start playing baseball at Arizona until his junior year. He didn't play much, but scouts took note of his amazing speed. As a result, he was taken by the Houston Astros in the 17th round of the 1988 MLB draft.

His minor league career got off to a slow start in '88, as he'd hit just .214. However, he'd quickly rise through the Astros' farm system the next few years with a .331 average and 62 steals at Single-A Osceola in 1990 and a .308 average with 40 steals for Triple-A Tuscon in '91.

His efforts would earn him a late-season call-up in '91. In 20 games in Houston, he'd hit just .203 and steal just two bases.

It would be the only games he'd ever play as an Astro.

1992 Topps Traded #66T Kenny Lofton

Something about this card reminds me of the final scene in Major League when "Willie Mays" Hayes comes around from second to win the division for the Indians. The dirty uniform and those late '80s/early '90s Indians uniforms are staples of "Willie Mays" Hayes in the film.

In one of the best trades in Indians history, they'd acquire Lofton from Houston for Willie Blair and Eddie Taubensee.

Lofton's career took off in '92, as he'd lead the league with 66 steals in what was technically his rookie season. He'd finish second in the AL Rookie of the Year voting to Pat Listach.

Those 66 steals are still an AL rookie record.

1994 Topps #149 Kenny Lofton

This card is fitting for Lofton's 1993 and '94 seasons, as he'd win the Gold Glove award both years.

Lofton became the first Indian since Elmer Flick (in 1904 and '05) to lead the league in steals in back-to-back seasons, posting 70 steals in '93.

One of the reasons Lofton was able to wreck havoc on the basepaths was because of his superb on-base percentage. In just his second full year in the bigs, he walked 81 times and posted a spectacular .408 OBP.

Even though the season was abbreviated by the strike, Lofton would have the finest year of his career in 1994. He'd post a career-best .349 batting average (as well as a career-best .412 OBP), and lead the league in hits for the only time in his career with 160.

He'd again lead the entire league in stolen bases with 60 in '94. He'd also be elected to his first of six consecutive All-Star teams that year. 

One can only wonder what Lofton would've done with a full season in 1994.

1996 Upper Deck #319 Kenny Lofton

In baseball, once you have a great year, you're usually rewarded with fantastic shots for your baseball cards in years afterward. Kenny Lofton is no exception.

Lofton would win his third straight Gold Glove in 1995. He'd lead the league with 13 triples that year.

For the three years previous, Lofton had led the entire MLB in steals. In '95, he led "just" the American League with 54 steals. (The Marlins' Quilvio Veras bettered Lofton with 56 steals in '95. Who?)

Lofton would hit .310 in yet another abbreviated season in '95, only this time it was because of injury (he'd play in 118 games). He also played in his first of two career World Series in '95, hitting just .200 in a six game loss to the Braves.

He came back with a vengeance in 1996 by posting a career-best 75 steals in 1996, leading the league. He'd also win his fourth consecutive (and final) Gold Glove and post career-bests in runs (132) and hits (210) that year.

1996 would also be the final year of his first stint as an Indian.

1998 Topps #175 Kenny Lofton

Worried about his impending free agency after the 1997 season, the Indians dealt Lofton to the Braves in March of '97 for outfielders Marquis Grissom and David Justice.

He'd be an All-Star in his lone season as an Atlanta Brave in 1997. Before Lofton, only one other player had started consecutive All-Star games for different leagues (Manny Trillo in '82 and '83).

Although he'd suffer a bit in the stolen-base department (just 27), he'd have a great season in Atlanta, hitting .333 with a .409 OBP.

1998 Donruss Signature Series #39 Kenny Lofton

No worries, Cleveland. Lofton would be back in an Indians uniform in 1998, signing as a free agent in December of '97.

He'd steal 54 bases in '98, twice the amount he stole in '97. It would be the last 50+ steal season of his career.

Lofton would hit just .282 in 1998, but his career-high 87 walks would propel him to a .371 OBP.

Lofton would play in just 120 games in 1999. Although he'd be elected to his sixth and final All-Star team, he'd steal just 25 bases in '99. However, he would hit .301 that year.

2001 Upper Deck #76 Kenny Lofton

Lofton wasn't known for hitting homers. His 15 dingers in 2000 would be his career-high.

He'd post his final 100-run season in 2000, scoring 107 runs. Although his .278 average in 2000 was still decent, it was the lowest of his career up to that point (not counting his 20-game stint in Houston in '91).

The weather in Cleveland is not often kind to the players there, as shown by the photo that graces the front of Lofton's 2001 UD issue. I bet he would've stolen more bases if he played in a warmer city in his prime.

Lofton would have his first off year in '01, hitting just .261 and only stealing 16 bags.

He'd be in a different uniform in 2002, although his career as an Indian wasn't over just yet.

2002 Topps #583 Kenny Lofton

Here's where Kenny Lofton's career gets crazy. Lofton packed his bags more often than a scout in his last six ML seasons.

He'd play on nine different teams in his final six years in the majors. It wasn't easy to get a card picturing him in each uniform, but by gosh, I did it.

The craziness kicked off when he signed with the White Sox as a free agent in February of 2002. In 93 games for the Sox, he'd steal 22 bases, but hit just .259.

2003 Topps #622 Kenny Lofton

He'd be traded to the Giants at the 2002 trading deadline for their pennant run.

He'd play in 46 games for the Giants in the second half of '02, although he'd steal just seven bases.

2002 would also be the second and final World Series that Lofton would participate in. He'd hit .290 and steal three bags in the Giants' seven-game loss to the Angels.

2003 Upper Deck Vintage #314 Kenny Lofton

Lofton was without a job at the start of spring training in 2003. The Pirates would swoop in and sign him in March, though.

He'd hit eight homers and steal 18 bases in 84 games with the Buccos in the first half of 2003.

2004 Leaf #179 Kenny Lofton

To make a great baseball card, follow these instructions: just insert an action shot and Wrigley Field ivy, and voila! A great card is born.

Lofton would again be traded at the 2003 trading deadline. This deal would have a lasting impact on the Cubs in the coming years, however.

In return for Jose Hernandez and Bobby Hill, the Cubs got Lofton and Aramis Ramirez from the Pirates. Lofton would be gone after the '03 season, but Ramirez would have some great seasons for the Cubs in later years.

It's clear that Lofton was on that radar for any team looking to make a playoff push later in his career. He was a leader and still a decent player.

Lofton was a diamond in the rough for the Cubs in '03. In 56 games in Chicago, Lofton would hit .327. He'd also hit .323 in the Cubs' famous seven-game loss to the Marlins in the NLCS that year.

Between Pittsburgh and Chicago in '03, Lofton would post his first 30-steal season since 2000.

2004 Topps #508 Kenny Lofton

For the first time since 2001, Lofton would actually spend a full year with a team in '04, signing with the Yankees in January of 2004.

He'd play in just 83 games with the Bronx Bombers in '04, however, stealing just seven bases. 

Lofton would again play in the postseason in '04, playing in just four games between the Yankees' ALDS victory over the Twins and their famous seven-game loss to the Red Sox in the ALCS.

Having Kenny Lofton on your squad almost always meant your team was going to make the playoffs. From 1995 to 2004, Kenny Lofton missed the postseason just once (in 2000 with the Indians).

2006 Upper Deck #348 Kenny Lofton

Of course, Lofton would find himself on a different team in 2005, being traded to the Phillies in December of '04.

Surprisingly, Lofton had a fantastic year in '05, hitting .335 with a .392 OBP in 110 games as a Philly. He'd steal 22 bases and be caught stealing just three times throughout the course of the year.

It's almost as if card companies couldn't wait to see what Lofton would go to next, as he was already on a different team by the time this 2006 UD card hit the market.

 2006 Topps Update #UH128 Kenny Lofton

Lofton would sign with the Dodgers for the 2006 season.

In 129 games as a Dodger, Lofton would hit .301. He'd also have his ninth and final 30-steal season, stealing 32 in '06.

After a one-year hiatus from the postseason in '05, Lofton was back with the Dodgers in '06. He'd go just 1-for-13 and the Dodgers would be swept by the Mets in the 2006 NLDS.

2007 Upper Deck #986 Kenny Lofton

2007 would be Lofton's final year in the majors.

He'd sign with the Rangers in December of '06. As a 40 year-old, Lofton would hit .303 and steal 21 bags in his 84-game stint in Texas.

2008 Upper Deck #129 Kenny Lofton

It's fitting that with all the different teams Lofton played in the final years of his career, it would eventually culminate in him coming back to Cleveland.

He'd be dealt back to the Indians at the 2007 trading deadline. It's no coincidence that the Indians were making a playoff push that year.

Lofton would steal the final two regular-season stolen bases of his career in 52 games as an Indian in '07.

Lofton was a major factor in the Indians' four-game victory over his former Yankees in the ALDS, hitting .375.

Lofton would hit just .222 in the Indians' seven-game ALCS loss to the Red Sox.

He stole two bases in the '07 playoffs, making him the all-time postseason stolen bases leader with 34.

His final totals for 2007: .296 average, .367 OBP, and 23 steals. Not bad at all for a final season.

Lofton would retire after not being offered a contract in the 2007 offseason.

His 622 career stolen bases are the 15th most in big league history.

Some guys are on a bunch of teams at the end of their career simply because no one wanted to hang onto them. On the other hand, Kenny Lofton switched teams so much at the end of his career because he was in demand for so many teams. 

As I said before, it's no coincidence that almost all the teams he played for in his career eventually made it to the postseason.

They all wanted Kenny Lofton.

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