HOUSTON - Kenny Lofton has been away for five years and there's a group of new faces in the home dugout. That's not all that's changed since he departed Houston in a trade for Willie Blair and Eddie Taubensee in 1991.
"I understand the game more than I did then," the Braves' new leadoff hitter said. "It doesn't feel strange at all coming back here. I only played here three weeks. I look at it as a business decision. Basically, everybody got what they wanted in that deal."
Since the trade, Lofton has turned into the game's best leadoff man and a Gold Glove center fielder. Meanwhile, the Astros don't have Taubensee or Blair.
"Lofton should thank me for where he is and the money he makes," said Taubensee, now with the Reds. "(My claim to fame) is that I was once traded for a Hall of Famer."
Lofton has made himself at home in the Braves clubhouse and his new teammates have made him feel welcome. Already players are playing practical jokes on him, helping him to feel that "I fit in."
"The biggest thing was players accepting me and they have," Lofton said. "Once I feel comfortable, I'm ready to go."
The only matter remaining to clear up is his NBA career. There won't be one. Stan Kasten, president of the Hawks and Braves, has dangled a carrot in front of Lofton, offering him a tryout with the Hawks to keep him in Atlanta. While saying he'd love to stay, Lofton, a sixth man with the Arizona team that went to the Final Four in 1988, said he's not interested in joining the Hawks.
"What? Mookie (Blaylock) plays 47 minutes and I play one," Lofton said, smiling. "I'm playing baseball right now. Basketball is history. I've got to talk to Kasten. I've got to get on him."
CHOMPING AT THE BIT: Bobby Cox can't wait to get the season started. If it was up to him, spring training would either start later or end earlier.
"We've been ready for awhile," he said. "Spring training is probably a week too long."
Don't think for a moment that a man who began his pro career almost 40 years ago doesn't still get nervous on opening day. Cox admitted the butterflies had already begun circling in his stomach Monday afternoon.
"When you lose those, you might as well go home," he said. "It's exciting, the pennant race starts."
LOPEZ READY: Javier Lopez picked up a bat and swung it mightily before batting practice Monday and declared his left wrist to be fine.
"Oh, yeah, I'm ready man," he said. "I don't feel anything."
Lopez was hit on the wrist by a pitch in Saturday's game and was fortunate to receive nothing more serious than a bad bruise.
By late Monday afternoon, the Astros had sold about 45,000 tickets for tonight's opener and had about 5,000 tickets remaining. ...
KNOWS THE SCORE: John Smoltz knows he's carrying a heavy burden of increased expectations as he heads into tonight's start, the result of a 24-win, Cy Young season last year.
"I can see the headlines," he said. "It will be, he started where he left off or, well, I won't even talk about the second one."
PLANS FOR MONEY: General manager John Schuerholz said Monday the money saved on the contracts of Marquis Grissom and David Justice contracts is earmarked for potential free agents Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and Lofton.
"It's no secret we have three free agents and we have money to spend for retention of those players or the acquisition of other talented players," he said. "Whatever we need to do."
WAIVER LOSSES: The waiver wire was buzzing Monday. The Mets claimed left-hander Yorkis Perez, released by the Braves last week, on waivers and the Astros claimed infielder Tim Bogar from the Mets. As consideration for the claim, the Astros sent the contract of infielder Luis Lopez to New York.
Perez, 0-1 with a 2.57 ERA with the Braves this spring, was a victim of the Lofton trade. He became expendable when left-hander Alan Embree was acquired and the Mets were able to shore up their bullpen by claiming him.
"The Mets had expressed some interest (in Perez) early in camp, but nothing significant," Schuerholz said.
Schuerholz indicated he could have made a deal for Perez, but would have received a player who was out of options, like Perez, and saw no sense in making the trade.
NUMBER CHANGE: Bryan Harvey will wait for the return to Atlanta to get to his old uniform number. He has worn No. 38 all spring, but plans to regain his No. 34, the number he's worn throughout his career, when the team returns home Friday.