CLEVELAND, Ohio — In the early 2000s, I was covering the Cleveland Indians when Kenny Lofton was roaming centerfield for the ballclub. I found Lofton aloof, surly and often unapproachable.
I disliked him. So did most sportswriters.
While he was never the worst interviewee I encountered — Eddie Murray earned that distinction — Lofton was among the worst, which shocked me to see in a man with his education.
He should have understood the value of good public relations. He didn’t then.
Now, his past haunts his present.
I say this two days before the latest induction into Cooperstown. On Sunday, the National Baseball Hall of Fame welcomes Buck O’Neil, Art Fowler, Jim Kaat, Gil Hodges, Minnie Miñoso, Tony Oliva and David Ortiz into the holiest shrine in sports.
Its doors might never open, however, for Lofton, which maddens me.
For unlike other ballplayers Hall voters shunned, Lofton didn’t tote around the stench of steroids. No baseball investigation linked his name with Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and others under PED scrutiny, so voters should have judged Lofton on his on-field performance.
They didn’t. In 2013, he got 3.2 percent of the votes, not nearly enough to keep his name on the Hall-of-Fame ballot beyond one time.
I call that a misjudgment of his talent.
Through most of his early career, Lofton was the game’s most exciting lead-off hitter and its finest centerfielder. He’d line a single to get on base and instantly turn the single into a runner on second with nobody out.
Back in his halcyon days as a Yankee, Reggie Jackson was called “the straw that stirs the drink,” and fans could easily have attached that tag to Lofton, who set the table for Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome and Albert Belle.
Not one of those sluggers defined the ‘90s here better than Lofton.
I could trot out his numbers to make my case for his induction. I could point to his 68.3 WAR, increasingly a yardstick used to judge a ballplayer’s worth. I could tell people that the experts on such things rank Lofton at No. 10 among centerfielders, a standing that put him ahead of Hall of Famers like Richie Ashburn, Duke Snider and Lloyd Waner.
To see Lofton play was to watch art in motion. He was smooth as plexiglass, swift as a panther and fearless as a prizefighter — as pugnacious as one, too.
I wonder if Lofton might alter his approach to media if he could redo his career. In retirement, he must know he’s more worthy of induction than Harold Baines, Andre Dawson or Kirby Puckett.
Ask my opinion, and I’d say Lofton is more worthy of enshrinement than the one-dimensional Thome, although I’d cause a ruckus if I dared say so.
Regardless, Lofton never got his due; he won’t get it unless the Era Committees decide to pore over his résumé. They should.
I play no role in Lofton’s selection; if I had one, I might hesitate to write his name on my ballot because of how poorly he handled the promotional side of his career. Yet the clubhouse isn’t the measure of a ballplayer’s excellence; the ballfield is.
His being out of Cooperstown speaks to how vengeful sportswriters are in judging an athlete’s bona fides. Their slighting of Lofton serves as a reminder to all: play nice.
Justice B. Hill grew up and still lives on the city’s East Side. He practiced journalism for more than 25 years before settling into teaching at Ohio University. He quit May 15, 2019, to write and globetrot. He’s doing both.