CLEVELAND -- Kenny Lofton took the scenic route to home plate for his first at-bat in more than a year at Jacobs Field. He wore a wide circle from the dugout to the batter's box, pausing while the ovation grew.
Why hurry? It had been a while since he'd heard cheers like this. Soak them up. Enjoy.
"When the fans fill the stadium up and you hear them cheer, I think that's what I missed," said Lofton, who returned to Cleveland in the Indians' home opener Friday after a year in Atlanta.
This was indeed the Lofton of old. Before you knew it, there he was on third base. He led off the game with a double, stole third and trotted home on Shawon Dunston's sacrifice fly. Just like that, 1-0.
The crowd of 42,707 -- Cleveland's 212th straight sellout -- loved it. The Indians beat the Anaheim Angels 8-5 on Jim Thome's three-run homer in the 10th.
"After I hit that double, I stood at second base and told myself, `Hey, I'm back at The Jake,' " Lofton said. "It was like I never left."
Lofton was traded to the Braves on March 25, 1997, because the Indians feared they wouldn't be able to sign him after the season. Cleveland, which also parted with lefty reliever Alan Embree, received All-Stars David Justice and Marquis Grissom from the Braves.
The Braves had no interest in signing Lofton beyond '97. After he was hobbled by injuries and thrown out stealing a career-high 20 times, other clubs were scared off, too.
Cleveland general manager John Hart wasn't. He signed Lofton to a $24 million, three-year contract and traded Grissom to Milwaukee on Dec. 8, booking a rare second act for a departed star athlete and a city.
"When Kenny left last year, it was probably an uncomfortable situation," Thome said. "He comes back, he gets this great welcome, and for good reason. Kenny belongs here. He doesn't need to be anywhere else. And he realizes that."
Lofton chooses his words carefully when speaking of The Atlanta Experience. Truth is, he didn't deliver what the Braves were expecting because of injuries. The fans never warmed to him. He never felt as though he belonged.
"It's hard to compare Cleveland and Atlanta without knocking another city," Lofton said. "I just dealt with the situation. I can't say that I did or didn't like it."
Lofton could only watch on TV as the team he grew up with suffered that excruciating loss in Game 7 of the World Series to the Florida Marlins last fall. Then he had to watch his teammates receive their AL championship rings without him before the home opener.
"If they had been getting the rings for winning it all, it would have been a drag," Lofton said. "I tell myself, I've got a ring to where I got to the World Series and didn't win. I don't want any more of those. I want the real deal. I want the championship ring."
It was not a perfect return. A base hit rolled right under Lofton's glove costing the Indians a run in the fifth inning. In the ninth, he missed a sign -- either hit-and-run or bunt-and-run -- and Omar Vizquel was thrown out at second.
But he seems to have grown up since the posturing over his contract forced Hart to trade him last spring. Like many star athletes, he was lured by the idea of greener pastures and a chance to transcend sports celebrity outside small-market Cleveland.
Lofton attended the Cavaliers' NBA game against the Chicago Bulls Thursday night. It was the second time he's met Michael Jordan, who will always belong to Chicago the way Lofton belongs to Cleveland. The meetings might have put his own stardom in perspective.
"I was at a function a year ago, and he came up to me and tapped me on the shoulder," Lofton said. "I couldn't believe it. But that's the way he is. He's such a great guy."
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