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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Former Cat hits big in majors

    PHOENIX – It’s the top of the third inning on a muggy night in August at Chase Field, and Kenny Lofton takes his practice swings in the on-deck circle, throws the donut off his bat and digs in with his left foot.

    The left-handed hitting outfielder works the count to two and two before he pulls a routine ground ball to second base.

    Lofton is 39 years old, but the same speed and athleticism that was there more than 20 years ago, when the kid from the Chicago projects descended upon Tucson, are still existent. Lofton is out on the play, but not before making the umpire nervous on the call.

    “”We used to always have a softball game and, of course, I knew he was a good high school baseball player,”” said UA men’s basketball head coach Lute Olson, who coached Lofton from 1985 to 1989, “”but after playing in that softball game, it seemed like he covered right field to left field.

    “”When I talked to (then-UA baseball head coach) Jerry Kindall about him, I said, ‘Hey, this guy, if he gets his bat on the ball, you’re going to have a hard time throwing him out.'””

    Catchers in the majors have had a hard time throwing out the speedy Lofton, who has 592 stolen bases and a career average of .299 for 16 seasons.

    Now with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Lofton is no longer the young leadoff hitter who energized the World Series-contending Cleveland Indians teams from 1992-96. He is instead the No. 2 hitter, who energizes a young Dodgers squad that is competing for a playoff spot.

    “”You see him and it doesn’t look like he’s aged at all,”” Olson said. “”Kenny was always someone who stayed in great shape all the time and takes care of himself, very fussy in terms of eating the right foods, doesn’t smoke or drink.””

    In the top of the fourth inning, Lofton singles to right field and immediately becomes a pest. He takes three steps off first base, followed by a quick half step.

    Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Claudio Vargas is conscious of the man who nabbed 75 bases in 1996, as he quickly throws over to first before his first pitch to the plate.

    Before Lofton is taken out in the bottom of the eighth inning of what would become a 15-inning Dodgers loss, he makes three running catches, including one on a ball hit to deep left center field by Eric Byrnes, making Lofton stretch with his back to home plate and come up with a ball most 39-year-old ballplayers wouldn’t reach with a javelin.

    Playing basketball

    In 1985, Lofton was stretching out on the basketball court – defensively speaking – to pester opposing ball handlers instead of opposing infielders and pitchers. He came to Tucson on a basketball scholarship and thought about playing baseball, but “”the situation just didn’t work out that way,”” Lofton said.

    In his first year, Lofton struggled to get on the court, averaging 2.4 points in just 6.8 minutes. The next season, Lofton caught a lucky break, as guard Steve Kerr went down with an injury and Lofton earned his starting spot.

    He would capitalize, averaging a career-high 6.8 points per game, but an NBA future was starting to dim. Although Lofton’s defense was spectacular – he held the Arizona records for steals in a season and steals in a career at one point – his stature, listed at 6-feet, likely prevented NBA teams from looking at him seriously.

    “”After my junior year in college, I knew baseball was going to be my sport,”” Lofton said.

    “”I just knew, I didn’t have a chance to play the game of basketball like I wanted to, and all the guys were getting basketball comments and I wasn’t one of the guys, so I just knew I needed to do something else.””

    During that junior year, Lofton went back to the bench and became part of the bench squad known as the “”Gumbies”” for the stiff figures they resembled. Those players, including two of Lofton’s good buddies Bruce Fraser and Harvey Mason, were no stiffs, though, serving an important role on the Wildcats’ first Final Four team in 1988.

    Lofton, who is one of only two players ever to play in a Final Four and a World Series, said he talks to Mason, a record producer in Los Angeles, almost daily.

    As for Olson and Lofton’s relationship, it was never smooth.

    “”He was tough on the guards,”” Lofton said. “”I was one guy he was always tough on.””

    Now, Lofton said he talks to Olson once in awhile, and Olson said the former Wildcat had a driver take him to dinner at Olson’s house in 2004 when Lofton played for the Yankees before coming back to Phoenix for a game the next day.

    “”My relationship with them once they’re done playing is always a lot better than when they’re playing because as a head coach, I have to hold the hammer and push them harder than they think they should be pushed,”” Olson said, “”but once they get done, usually it doesn’t take five years before they realize that what was demanded of them was in their best interests. Our relationship now is very good.””

    Said Lofton: “”He’s gotten a lot calmer since when I played with him. I think he yelled more then than he does now, so that’s a little different.””

    Then and now

    Lofton is not one to crave media attention.

    As he sat by his locker preparing for the night’s game, he wasn’t interested in any kind of “”where are they now”” story.

    “”People know where I am,”” he said, turning his head briefly.

    Lofton doesn’t reminisce about the past or any of his basketball moments, not even the 1989 Sweet Sixteen loss to Nevada-Las Vegas that left Lofton in tears and marked the end of his basketball career.

    “”It’s been so long ago,”” he said. “”How many years ago? 15 years ago. I can’t remember.””

    Lofton does remember that it was an “”exciting time.””

    “”I was a young kid, and I’m a grown man now, so it’s hard to remember back then,”” Lofton said. “”All I can say: It was a good time.””

    A member of Kappa Alpha Psi, Lofton said he “”chased the girls like every guy does in college and enjoyed every minute of (college).””

    He was also a part of the Youtube.com classic “”Wild About the Cats”” song.

    “”It was so long ago. … Guys have their own tidbits about it,”” Lofton said.

    After a while, Lofton moved on from those days, but he did bring with him some of the lessons he learned while playing for Olson.

    “”I learned how to become a man, I guess,”” he said. “”You’re on your own, and you just learn to find out who you really are.””

    Lofton said he still talks to many of his former teammates but keeps basketball out of it for the most part.

    “”We’re grown men,”” he said.

    Lofton’s baseball career started when a local Tucson scout, Clark Crist, a former UA shortstop and the same man who signed Albert Pujols, signed him to a contract with the Houston Astros.

    Now, Lofton’s career is on the verge of the end. The only active pro member left from the 1988 Final Four team, Lofton’s career surpassed his more prominent teammates at the time.

    And Olson never forgot. During the press conference following the 1997 NCAA Championship victory, Olson found time to talk about Lofton.

    “”First thing I do in the morning is to get to the sports section to check how our guys are doing in the NBA or to see Kenny Lofton in terms of what’s happening with him,”” Olson said.

    Nine years later, Olson likes what he’s seen from the kid who received so much of his yelling.

    “”It’s worked out really well for Kenny,”” he said, “”and we’re really pleased for him.””

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