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WSI News - News Watch

Lofton Adds Speed to Sox

March 16th, By Sam Smith, Chicago Tribune

TUCSON, Ariz. - Kenny Lofton, in a way, always has been running.

And not just around the bases, where he once led the American League in steals five straight seasons.

"That's just me," the new White Sox center fielder and leadoff man says. "I'm an aggressive person on the basepaths and in the field."

But he has been running for years—from an impoverished background, from inquisitive reporters, from the spotlight of success and now from the inevitable decline of his skills.

Approaching 35, the fourth-leading active base stealer is rounding third base in his career finally heading for home.

"It will mean a lot to my family and the people I grew up around to get the opportunity to see me play on a daily basis," says Lofton, who grew up in a loving home in East Chicago, Ind., where this summer he is dedicating a Little League field he refurbished for the community. "It's going to be fun."

Likewise, the White Sox are counting on Lofton's speed and daring play to bring excitement to their lineup. Although Lofton hit a career-low .261 with just 16 stolen bases last season, his spring performance appears to support his claim that he's over the injuries that have slowed him the last three seasons.

Lofton is batting .429 after going 3-for-4 in Saturday's 11-5 exhibition victory over Oakland, and and he has three stolen bases this spring.

"It's the Ichiro Suzuki factor," Sox general manager Ken Williams says of the Seattle speedster.

"He created an atmosphere and environment of getting on base. It all starts at the top of the order. If Kenny Lofton has a .370 (lifetime .377) on-base percentage, this team might score more than 900 runs."

It also would give Lofton another opportunity to run ahead of the expectations of his humble beginnings."We couldn't afford much," he acknowledges.

Though Lofton talks like he runs—wanting to get it over with and move on to the next base as quickly as he can—he is more defensive and guarded than the role he played as a point guard for some fine Arizona basketball teams in the 1980s.

Kenny never knew his father and doesn't discuss him. His mother, Annie, gave birth to him when she was 14 and later returned to school before moving away. Kenny sees her, but when asked about her, he says simply, "She's around."

"My inspiration is my grandmother," Lofton says of Rosie Person. "She is still the most instrumental person in my life. She raised me and taught me right from wrong. When I was a kid, I listened. Some kids, whatever their mom tells them, it's like, whatever. I respected and loved my grandmother. She sacrificed for me and I wanted to make her happy."

He even endangered his fledgling baseball career by refusing to go to the instructional league so he could fulfill a promise to his grandmother to get his college degree.

Rosie, suffering from glaucoma and unable to work, declined to go on welfare and lived on Social Security after her husband died. Her house had concrete floors and broken windows. Food was made to last and extravagances were unknown. Lofton's longtime personal reserve grew from the spartan upbringing and, though he played all sports, he earned a basketball scholarship to Arizona.

"I can't explain it to this day," Lofton says.

"Growing up in Indiana, it's all basketball. I just kind of went along with it."

As a lark, Lofton tried out for the baseball team at Arizona and got into five games as a pinch-runner and had one at-bat. Observers began to marvel at his speed and skills.

"[Basketball coach] Lute [Olson] would organize softball games for the team," says former Bull Steve Kerr, a teammate of Lofton's at Arizona, "and Kenny would just dominate. I never saw anyone as fast."

The 6-foot Lofton was the sixth man on Arizona's 1988 Final Four team and started the next season when the team was ranked No. 1 for a time. A Houston Astros scout saw his raw talent and the team made him a 17th-round draft pick.

By Lofton's third season in the minors, he led the league in hits and stole 62 bases. He played briefly for Houston in 1991, but the Astros believed Steve Finley was their future center fielder so they traded Lofton to Cleveland.

Lofton blossomed with the Indians. He was second in rookie of the year voting in 1992 and went on to become one of the best leadoff men and base stealers in baseball. He made the All-Star team six times, won four Gold Gloves and was in the playoffs six times. He has a career batting average of .302, and he plays hurt.

That probably helped account for last year's poor season, though Lofton batted .283 after the All-Star break as his shoulder injury healed.

"I'm a gamer," Lofton says. "I want to be on the field whether I'm hurt or not. I'm not someone who really leads by words. I lead by example. I'll go out there and play hard, play 110 percent every day and maybe people can look at that and feed off that.

"The last couple of years I was hurt. But I feel real good this year. I feel I can go back to my old self and do the things I've been doing. Chicago got me at the right time. There were opportunities for me (Cleveland let him go and the White Sox signed Lofton for about $1 million for one season).

"Things happened I can't explain. It's over with now and I'm in Chicago. I'm looking ahead to have a great year. I'm a guy who looks forward and doesn't look behind."

Kenny Lofton still is running. And it could be very good for the White Sox.



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