I remember it as if it was yesterday (and relax, everyone, this is not another "Do You Remember..." piece). Kenny Lofton perched on second base in the Seattle Kingdome in October 1995, in Game Six of the American League Championship Series, Ruben Amaro on third, The Big Unit, Randy Johnson, on the mound for the Mariners and the Tribe clinging to a 1-0 lead in the eighth inning, trying desperately to add to their advantage.
Already, some are bemoaning the fact that Cleveland has seen Seattle with home-field advantage in the series even though the Indians have blown away the American League to the tune of a 100-44 record, far better than Seattle's but a quirk in scheduling in those years. The Indians lead the series 3-2, but a Seattle win tonight and a Game 7 looms in Seattle, and we all know how a Game 7 can go.
Johnson breaks off a wicked pitch and it gets away from Dan Wilson, Seattle's catcher, and Amaro scores easily, as Wilson, knowing he cannot retrieve the passed ball in time to have a play at the plate, jogs toward the backstop.
And here comes Kenny Lofton, barreling into third and then turning for home, as a shocked Randy Johnson hovers near the plate and Dan Wilson sees what is happening too late. Lofton scores from second on a passed ball - how rare is that? - and Seattle is done for, even with two innings left to bat. The Tribe wins 4-0 after adding another run in the eighth on a Carlos Baerga home run, as Dennis Martinez gets the win in the series-clincher.
But it is Kenny Lofton's all-out hustle that is the defining moment of the game. The Indians advance to their first World Series in 41 years against the Atlanta Braves, and although they lose, the Tribe has captured the imagination of northeast Ohio and will hold that attention for the next six years before declining, finally, in 2002.
Flash forward 15 years, to Aug. 7, 2010, and that centerpiece of the greatest of all eras of Indians' excellence is inducted into the Indians' Hall of Fame in a ceremony at Progressive Field, where he patrolled for so long.
The years between that glorious dash from second to home on a pitch that never was more than 30 or 40 feet from home plate and now have seen Kenny Lofton wear many different uniforms, but somehow, he is always, first and foremost, a Cleveland Indian.
Lofton came up in the Houston organization and got into 20 games with the Astros in 1991 before coming to the Tribe along with the long-forgotten Dave Rohde for Willie Blair and Eddie Taubensee. Little did anyone know at the time just how one-sided that trade would be. Lofton immediately became a full-time outfielder with the Indians, and patrolled center field during the last two years of the Tribe's history in the old Cleveland Stadium and was right there, at the top of the order, for the first game ever at Jacobs' Field against those same Seattle Mariners and that same Big Unit in 1994.
Of course, that season was shortened by a strike that wiped out the post-season, but the Indians, with 66 wins and 47 losses, with newly-added Dennis Martinez and Eddie Murray to compliment Omar Vizquel and Carlos Baerga, were going to be a force to be reckoned with, and in 1995, when labor issues were behind them and helped immensely by the addition of Orel Hershiser, the Indians flourished.
And almost always, in the midst of a rally, there was Lofton, not only fast but also an excellent base-runner, a disruptive force drawing attention away from the big guns further down in the line-up. A potent combination.
And that glove, that range in center field, those fence-climbing catches (or attempts at catches) that electrified the crowd. No ball hit in the air anywhere except for down the lines or to direct right or left fields was safe from a Kenny Lofton track-down, which, of course, made the jobs of the flanking outfielders that much easier, as it allowed them to cheat a little more toward the lines than they would have been able to without a center-field so able to cover the alleys and gaps of left-center and right-center.
Lofton stayed with the Indians through 1996, through the second of five consecutive division titles, and then, shockingly, was traded in the off-season to Atlanta, along with Alan Embree, for Marquis Grissom and David Justice - the same Justice who had won the '95 World Series for the Braves with a home run that turned out to be the only run scored in the deciding game. Lofton trundled off to Atlanta, batted .333, and then, when he came up for free agency, returned to Cleveland and stayed through 2001 before leaving in free agency for the White Sox.
Then followed a parade of different teams: San Francisco, Pittsburgh, the Cubs, the Yankees, Philadelphia, the Dodgers and Texas, before, one more time, Lofton came back to Cleveland in the middle of the Indians' last season of glory, in 2007, when he was traded by the Rangers to the Tribe for Max Ramirez.
What followed was the best of all worlds - Lofton back where he "belonged", surrounded by an atmosphere that was almost a love-fest in Cleveland and coinciding with the Indians driving for the American League Central crown and then knocking off the Yankees in the playoffs, before losing the heartbreaking ALCS after leading Boston three-games-to-one.
After the season, Lofton was granted free agency, but unlike long-ago teammates Julio Franco and Omar Vizquel, Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome, Lofton was done.
Does Kenny Lofton belong in the Baseball Hall of Fame? With a career batting average of .299, with 130 home runs and 781 RBI, with 2,428 hits to go along with 622 stolen bases...and with that glove...I would say that, unequivocally, absolutely, and without hesitation Lofton belongs in Cooperstown. Not exactly an objective opinion, but the numbers, I do believe, for a man who had no hint of scandal in his career, no PEDs to "help" him, speak for themselves.
But for now, the arms of Cleveland will embrace him one more time, and this time he will be joining the rarefied air of the company of such greats as Lemon and Feller and Boudreau and Doby and so many more immortals of Cleveland baseball.
Kenny Lofton? Welcome to the Cleveland Indians Hall of Fame. Nobody deserves it more.