In the career of a baseball player, heartbreak takes many shapes.
There’s the explicit career collapse, most notably those suffering from the yips, aka “Steve Blass Disease”: Chuck Knoblauch, Steve Sax, Mackey Sasser, Rick Ankiel, etc.
There’s the right place, wrong time, FOMO-incarnate superstars — Bryce Harper this season being the most pertinent example. Remember Magglio Ordóñez? He was a franchise icon who left the White Sox the year before they won it all in 2005. Or Mike Mussina, who joined the Yankees in 2001, just in time to see their dynasty fall in Game 7 to the Diamondbacks. Moose remained in pinstripes until his retirement after 2008, the year before the Yankees grabbed that elusive 27th championship.
Then there’s the category of star players who miss the postseason spotlight entirely. Ernie Banks, Mr. Cub, having never played in a postseason game despite 512 career home runs. Mike Trout has to be in the conversation: 72.9 bWAR for his career, 285 home runs, three MVP trophies, the consensus best player in the sport for at least seven years running — yet to experience the rush of a playoff win. We can put the entire Montreal Expos in this category for being robbed of the opportunity to win the 1994 World Series.
But I’m a guy who likes subtlety. I’m looking for the player in soft focus behind the celebration. The guy you don’t notice when the single tear dots his cheek. And in terms of close-but-no-cigar, ho-hum sagas of player woe — Kenny Lofton‘s run of playoff heartbreak stands out.
Kenny Lofton was a tremendously fun player to watch: Top-shelf speed, East Chicago swagger, the loose way he stuck his glove halfway up his palm. His herky-jerky, slap-hitting style at the dish gave his at-bats an offbeat rhythmic quality. He was a six-time All-Star, four-time Gold Glove recipient, and remains among the most prolific base stealers the sport has seen. (Not to mention, Lofton, like myself, hails from the collection of Chicago suburbs in Northwest Indiana known as The Region.)
But Kenny Lofton never won a World Series ring. Not only did he never win, but as one of the nineties’ primo mercenaries (Lofton played for 11 different teams during his 17-year career), he experienced a shocking number of the most heartbreaking disappointments of his era. Lofton might be the preeminent close-but-no-cigar superstar of post-strike baseball.
Take a look at this list of heartbreaks Lofton witnessed firsthand:
- 1995: Indians lose the World Series to Braves (Atlanta’s only title of their 14-year playoff run).
- 1997: In his only season as part of the Turner machine, Lofton and the Braves fall to a rookie Liván Hernández and the upstart Florida Marlins. Meanwhile, the Indians return to the World Series. I’m assuming some FOMO heartbreak here for Lofton, but it ultimately saved him the trauma of losing a Game Seven walk-off. Count this as a “settler’s win” for Lofton.
- 1995-2001: The above pennant-winning team aside, Lofton roams center field and hits leadoff for an Indians’ team that — according to ESPN’s Jeff Passan — is the best team never to win a title.
- 2002: Lofton leaves the Indians and launches his career as a hired gun. He finds himself in Game Seven of the World Series for the Giants … as they lose one of the least-interesting (and, therefore, disheartening) Game Sevens in recent memory. Now on Lofton’s side of the aisle, Liván Hernández can’t repeat the magic of past postseasons. Almost all of the game’s offense comes when Hernández loses the strike zone and Garret Anderson clears the bases with a three-RBI double early in the game. John Lackey, Brendan Donnelly, a 20-year-old K-Rod, and Troy Percival take care of the rest like it’s a Thursday in June. Lofton and the Barry Bonds/Dusty Baker Giants fall 4-1 to the Angels.
- 2003: After the Cubs fleece the Pirates for Lofton and Aramis Ramirez in July, Lofton finds himself in Chicago as the most-hyped Cubs team in decades runs into a Florida Marlins buzzsaw. Aided by Steve Bartman, Alex Gonzalez, and Dusty Baker (hello again), the Cubs lose a 3-1 series lead and the chance to break the Curse of the Billy Goat. Lofton goes 1-for-13 over the final three games, all Chicago losses.
- 2004: Speaking of curses, Lofton was there when the Curse of the Bambino was broken. He was just on the wrong side of it. Lofton goes 3-for-10 in three starts (including Game Seven) as the Yankees become the first team to blow a 3-0 series lead. They lose to the rival Red Sox, who go on to win their first World Series in 86 years.
- 2006: Lofton gets swept out of the NLDS as part of Grady Little’s Dodgers. This barely registers on Lofton’s list of playoff disappointments.
- 2007: Kenny’s final campaign — he would be traded mid-season for the third time. This iteration sends him from the Rangers back to the Indians to finish his career with a third spell in Cleveland. It’s beginning to feel like a storybook ending for Lofton when the Indians take a 3-1 ALCS lead against the Red Sox. But it happens again: The Red Sox storm back to take the final three games by scores of 7-1, 12-2, and 11-2.
The ’90s Indians, the 2003 Cubs, the 2004 Yankees, the 2007 Indians are among the most dramatic and heartbreaking losers of post-strike baseball. In fact, a team lost in the Championship Series after being up three games to one just four times throughout Lofton’s career. Lofton was on three of those four losers.
After the strike-shortened 1994 season, Lofton’s club made the postseason every year except for 2000 (Indians, with a 90-72 record) and 2005 (Phillies, 88-74). He was a winner. When he was on sub-.500 teams, a team in the hunt traded for him. He played in 95 postseason games, his team going 49-46 in those games.
But there’s one final heartbreak to put a bow on Lofton’s career.
Look at his numbers, and it’s surprising he didn’t get greater consideration for the Hall of Fame. He failed to reach any of the singular benchmarks that trigger earnest consideration: .299/.372/.423, 2,428 hits, 1,528 runs, 622 stolen bases. He’s tied for 107th all-time in offensive bWAR, just behind Jason Giambi, Ryne Sandberg, and Vladimir Guerrero. He’s tied for 105th all-time in defensive bWAR, just ahead of Lorenzo Cain.
But he’s a top 200 player all-time in total bases, top 150 in hits, walks, and triples, 87th all-time in singles, 68th in stolen base percentage (min. 200 attempts), 63rd in runs scored, and 15th in stolen bases. He is tied with Carlton Fisk and Edgar Martinez for 78th all-time among position players in bWAR. Within 2.0 bWAR on either side of Lofton, you’ll find the likes of Tony Gwynn, Tim Raines, Sandberg, Eddie Murray, Roberto Alomar, and Ernie Banks. That’s good company.
Try this comp on for size: Craig Biggio was worth 2.9 bWAR less than Lofton in a career spanning from 1988 to 2007. Lofton’s career wasn’t quite as long: He made his debut in 1991 and retired the same season as Biggio. As a result, Biggio ended with over 3,000 hits, while Lofton fell shy of 2,500.
And yet, Lofton recorded a hit once every 3.34 at-bats, versus Biggio, who registered a base knock just once every 3.55 at-bats. Biggio racked up more fWAR, but Lofton earned more bWAR. Both were eligible for the Hall for the first time in 2013. Biggio was inducted in 2015, his third year of eligibility. By then, Lofton had already fallen off the ballot.
Lofton was inducted into the Cleveland Indians Hall of Fame in 2010, and there may not be a player more fitting. In some ways, he’s the perfect Cleveland Indian. For every heartbreaking series suffered in Cleveland, Lofton matched it and raised with a pair of heartbreaks of his own.
His numbers might be borderline for the Hall of Fame, but for all the near-misses in his career, hopefully, the Veterans Committee can one day give Lofton the big win he deserves. And if not, if this proves to be the one slump Kenny Lofton can’t break, well, he’s better qualified than most to handle the heartache.
Featured image by Alyssa Buckter (alyssabuckter.com)