Lofton: 'Back where I belong'

By Ken Berger Associated Press Published:

And they said goodbye to the man who replaced him in a stunning postscript to one of the year's biggest trades.

Cleveland struck a rare reunion with their centerfielder on Monday, signing Lofton to a $24 million, three-year contract and trading Marquis Grissom to the Milwaukee Brewers for three pitchers, including Ben McDonald.

"I'm glad to be back where I belong," Lofton said as he slipped back into the jersey he wore while terrorizing AL pitchers for five seasons. "Everyone knows I belong here."

Grissom, the MVP of the AL championship series who could not live up to Lofton's legacy as a leadoff hitter, ends up back in the National League with new member Milwaukee. The Brewers sent McDonald and relievers Mike Fetters and Ron Villone to Cleveland and also got right-hander Jeff Juden from the Indians.

Cleveland immediately dealt Fetters to Oakland for right-hander Steve Karsay.

The Indians also had a new teammate waiting for Lofton _ Dwight Gooden, who signed a two-year contract worth $5,675,000.

"This is going to be fun," Indians general manager John Hart said under his breath as he approached a podium to make all these announcements.

The flurry of moves amounted to an unlikely reversal of the Grissom-for-Lofton portion of Cleveland's blockbuster trade with the Atlanta Braves in spring training.

No one was more stunned than Lofton when the Indians called his bluff and traded him to Atlanta with Alan Embree for Grissom and David Justice on March 25. Lofton had turned down a five-year offer from Cleveland worth about $44 million, saying he planned to test the free agent market after the 1997 season.

Now Lofton and Grissom, two centerfielders who keep passing in the night, are inexorably linked again.

"It's like I was a ghost for a year," a grinning Lofton said, "but now I'm back."

Lofton, 30, helped Cleveland shake its loser image by leading the Indians to their first World Series in 41 years in 1995. At a parade after the Series, he shouted to fans, "Cleveland, you ain't seen nothin' yet!"

But he became persona non grata in Atlanta, where he was hampered by injuries and batted .333 with only 27 stolen bases. The Braves did not offer arbitration to Lofton, who found only Cleveland and Milwaukee interested in him this winter.

Lofton's agent, Steve Zucker, said he turned down five-year deals worth about $40 million from Cleveland and Milwaukee. Lofton opted for the shorter contract with all money paid up front.

"We had our sights set on Kenny Lofton, but as that thing progressed it looked like we weren't going to be able to sign Kenny," Milwaukee general manager Sal Bando said. "We proceeded to contact Cleveland to see what they were looking for for Marquis Grissom."

Grissom and Justice led the Indians to the World Series for the second time in three years, playing major roles in straightening out the once-volatile Cleveland clubhouse.

On the heels of last week's trade in which Cleveland sent third baseman Matt Williams to Arizona, the Lofton signing again sends the Indians into a season with a substantially changed team.

Although Lofton patrolling center field at the Jake hardly seems like a change.

"We missed him," Hart said. "For a year."

It will be interesting to see what role Lofton assumes on the club after sitting out the dramatic playoff run that Grissom helped orchestrate.

Grissom, 30, a quieter, steadier version of Lofton, batted .262 with 22 steals for the Indians. He delivered invaluable leadership, outstanding defense and a clutch, three-run homer off Armando Benitez in Game 2 of the ALCS against Baltimore en route to winning series MVP honors.

Lofton's reality check came when he had to watch his ex-teammates play in the World Series.

"It was real hard," said Lofton, who received a rousing ovation when he returned to Cleveland in a Braves uniform for the All-Star game. "I felt like I was right there with the guys."

Lofton played for the Indians from 1992-96, leading the AL in steals each year. He will get $7.5 million in each of the next three seasons, and Cleveland has an option for 2001 at between $8 million and $9 million, depending on his performance. If the option isn't exercised, Cleveland must pay a $1.5 million buyout.

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