Originally created 12/10/97

Lofton brings questions back to Cleveland



CLEVELAND -- OK, Kenny Lofton. Let's get the important stuff out of the way first: socks up or down?

There are still plenty of questions to be answered about Lofton's return to the Cleveland Indians.

The Indians believe they signed the same Lofton who led the AL in steals five straight years and won four Gold Gloves. Like Lofton, they believe the player who stole only 27 bases and became known as a sourpuss in Atlanta was just "a ghost."

"The past is the past," said Lofton, who returned to the team he led to the World Series in 1995 by signing a $24 million, three-year contract Monday. "I'm starting to look toward the future. If you start making gripes about the past, that has no effect on the future."

It will be interesting to see what role Lofton assumes on this club after a year away. While Lofton was a central figure in Cleveland's emergence in 1995 from decades of futility, he ended up missing a postseason drive that was even more dramatic.

Somehow the Indians got back to the World Series after losing two of the best players in franchise history -- Lofton and Albert Belle. The whole city caught Indians fever all over again, running around in knee-length red socks like those superstitious players at the Jake.

"Do they have to wear them like that again?" Lofton asked. "It's a new season, right?"

While Marquis Grissom couldn't live up to Lofton's spot at the top of the order, he sure could pull his socks up. He also proved one of baseball's best postseason performers. Grissom batted .292 in the postseason and is the only player to appear in the last three World Series, hitting .390. Lofton is a .263 hitter in the postseason.

Grissom, who did everything the Indians asked except get on base as much as Lofton, was traded to Milwaukee for three pitchers Monday to make room for Lofton.

General manager John Hart called manager Mike Hargrove recently to inform him there was a chance to again swap these two center fielders. Grissom and Lofton were traded for each other this spring in the blockbuster deal with Atlanta that included David Justice.

Hargrove reportedly said, "Don't tease me. If you can get him, get him."

Yes, a leadoff hitter of Lofton's stature should ease Hargrove's troubles. But did the manager already forget the clashing egos in the Cleveland clubhouse in 1996?

While Lofton did nothing to soothe things, the Indians don't think he was the cause of the friction. Without Belle stomping around, Lofton may very well be different.

"I just know how I am," Lofton said. "And I know what people say about other people sometimes isn't true."

The Lofton who played in the AL -- not to be confused with the one the Braves had last year -- was an electrifying outfielder who stole 327 bases in 398 attempts in his career. He was 27-for-47 with the Braves.

If nothing else, Lofton's return to Cleveland proved he still knows what to say.

"In my heart, I'm an Indian," he said. "I think I'll always be an Indian."