Look who's back in the Tribe

By Ken Berger Associated Press Published:

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. _ Kenny Lofton pops out of his seat as if his shoes are on fire. He dances his way across the room to the stereo, looks around with that wry, playful grin of his, and poses a question to the air.

"Anybody doing anything? Anybody reporting or anything?" Lofton asks. "Sorry."

He turns up the music. Way up. It is a song that he likes, just like his team and clubhouse. He is in charge once again, of the stereo and much more.

Make no mistake, Lofton is back. An outcast in Atlanta for a year, the speedy, sharp-witted, sometimes-testy centerfielder has returned to his element with the Cleveland Indians.

"It's like I've been in hiatus for a year," Lofton said. "Basically, that's it. No big thing. Same feeling."

While Lofton has no doubts or inhibitions about his athletic talent _ "I have nothing to prove" _ he doesn't seem to grasp the strangeness of his journey from Cleveland to Atlanta and back in one year. Sports stars leave town and get traded all the time, but how rare is it for a fan favorite, the backbone of a franchise, to return?

"It's a business. Bottom line," Lofton said. "They looked at it as a business decision, and they brought me back as a business decision. Same way."

Lofton, the Indians' career stolen-base leader and the sparkplug for Cleveland's first World Series appearance in 41 years in 1995, was traded to Atlanta with pitcher Alan Embree for Marquis Grissom and David Justice on March 25, 1997. General manager John Hart didn't believe he could sign Lofton, who was going into the final year of his contract.

What followed was even more surprising than the trade. Lofton, hampered by injuries and struggling to find an identity in an established clubhouse, had only 27 steals in 47 attempts. He was never accepted by the Atlanta fans the way he was in Cleveland, and there were whispers that some of his teammates could take him or leave him, too.

"I went in there, I made the adjustments," Lofton said. "It's just a case where over there, they were more concerned about pitching more so than offense."

The Indians, meanwhile, made a remarkable postseason run all the way to the seventh game of the World Series, where they lost to the Florida Marlins. Somehow, they did it without Lofton and Albert Belle, who had signed with the Chicago White Sox.

Grissom, Lofton's replacement in centerfield and briefly in the leadoff spot, was named MVP of the AL Championship Series.

Then came Dec. 8, 1997, the kind of day rarely seen in sports. Lofton returned to the Indians with a $24 million, three-year deal, and Grissom was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers.

Hart called manager Mike Hargrove when it became apparent a deal could be made to bring Lofton back.

"I talked to Grover a little bit," Hart said. "I said, 'You know, Kenny hasn't signed, and the agent says he'd like to come back.' I said, 'Mike, what do you think?'

"He said, 'I'd love to have him back. If you can get him, get him.' He said, 'Don't tease me.' That's exactly what he said."

It is a bit eerie to walk into the Indians' clubhouse at Chain O' Lakes Park and find Lofton sitting at the locker he cleaned out, supposedly for good, a year ago this week. It's as if 1997 were some sort of dream.

"I feel like I never left," Lofton said. "I left in the spring, and I'm back in the spring. So it's like there's no difference."

He remains a bit standoffish with the media and still throws icy glares at umpires when they call a strike on him. A couple of times this spring, he has flirted with ejections for barking at umps from the dugout after strikeouts.

It is an outward intensity that was missing from last year's team, as professional and thrilling as it was.

What is the catalyst for Lofton's edge? Perhaps his urban upbringing in East Chicago, Ind., where he was raised by his grandmother. He distrusts the media, but unlike Belle, he will talk once he gets comfortable.

His idol in baseball? Eddie Murray, a future Hall of Famer who played for Cleveland from 1994-96 and rarely, if ever, opened up to reporters.

"I think he got a bad reputation for no reason," said Lofton, perhaps speaking about himself at the same time. "I mean, if you don't talk good or bad, why bother the guy? He has his choice. And people put that against him, and you can't do that, I'm sorry. It's called freedom of speech."

So far, his teammates have welcomed him back.

"It takes a lot to come back to the team that traded you," Omar Vizquel said. "That means that he really likes it here. We missed him."

Hart is convinced that Lofton is over the leg injuries that caused him to have the worst stolen-base totals of his six-year career.

"He's a catalyst player, an electric player," Hart said. "I still see him that way."

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