Indians bring Lofton back to Cleveland

Indians bring Lofton back to Cleveland

CLEVELAND -- The No. 7 on his back looked familiar. But the No. 7 next to his name on the Indians' lineup card was a strange sight.

Kenny Lofton was back in that lineup for the first time since 2001, which, coincidentally enough, is the last time the Tribe reached the postseason.

That Lofton is here for his third tour of duty with the club, thanks to the trade that sent Class A catcher Max Ramirez to the Rangers, is a testament to two things -- the 40-year-old outfielder's durability, and the second-place Indians' aggressive desire to improve their ballclub.

Lofton believes center field and the leadoff spot are his true domain, yet he's willing to make concessions in an effort to win his first World Series ring in 16 big league seasons.

"The great players," he said, "are the ones who led their team to a championship. If you didn't win a championship, you're put down a notch lower. I don't want to be put down a notch. I want to win a championship."

So there he was Friday night, batting second and manning left field -- a position he had never played in the Majors, sans the All-Star Game -- in deference to Grady Sizemore.

He received a rousing, standing ovation as he stepped to the plate to face the Twins' Boof Bonser in the first inning. Before the game, he had to admit that never in his wildest imagination did he think he'd be calling Cleveland "home" once again.

"I missed being in Cleveland," he said. "I enjoy Cleveland. It's the city that got me going."

The rumor mill regarding Lofton potentially coming back to this city heated up over the last two weeks.

With Tuesday's non-waiver trade deadline looming, the Indians were looking for an impact bat from the left side that could play a corner outfield spot, given the disappointing production it has received from Trot Nixon and the hamstring strain that has sidelined David Dellucci since last month.

Lofton, who was batting .303 with a .380 on-base percentage, seven homers, three triples, 16 doubles, 21 stolen bases and 23 RBIs in 84 games this season, certainly fit the bill. And those numbers help to diffuse any concerns about his age or durability.

"It's amazing," general manager Mark Shapiro said. "He's 40 years old, but with the body of a 25-year-old. He's obviously taken care of himself. His approach to hitting is similar, but his experience is greater. To watch him play is not to watch a 40-year-old. It's to watch a guy who's still in his prime."

To get Lofton on their active roster, the Indians optioned outfielder Ben Francisco to Triple-A Buffalo. That's telling of the tenor of the trade, which sought to add some veteran experience to a club desperately searching to get over the playoff hump.

Lofton has been over that hump. Many times, in fact. He has played for 11 teams over 16 seasons, but the one near-constant in his career has been his knack for landing on clubs that play in October. He's been in the playoffs 10 out of the last 12 years.

"That can only help us," manager Eric Wedge said.

Wedge is expected to use Lofton as the primary option in left field, though Jason Michaels will continue to get starts against left-handed pitching.

Lofton, who was the Rangers' everyday center fielder, doesn't seem to mind the change in roles.

"I want to win," he said. "That's the bottom line."

Lofton's Indians teams won quite a bit. He donned the Tribe uniform from 1992-96 and again from 1998-2001, so he was a part of five Indians postseason teams, including the '95 club that reached the World Series.

In his Cleveland career, Lofton stole a club-record 450 bases, scored 951 runs (the third-highest total in Indians history), was a five-time All-Star and a four-time Gold Glove winner. That all helped secure his spot on the "Top 100 Greatest Indians" roster.

But the Indians didn't bring Lofton back merely as a sentimental fan favorite. They think he can provide a legitimate boost.

"He plays with intensity and brings a certain energy to a team," Shapiro said. "And I'll tell you what, he wants to win."

The Indians are inheriting what remains of Lofton's one-year, $6 million contract. That investment of nearly $2.5 million does not preclude the club from continuing to pursue bullpen options in the trade market, Shapiro said.

Shapiro actually pursued Lofton as an outfield option this past winter. But Lofton wanted to remain a center fielder, and that wasn't going to be possible in Cleveland, with Sizemore in the mix.

Sizemore's presence also pushes Lofton down a spot from his natural position in a batting order, for now.

"We've got more than two months left," Wedge said. "We don't need to make wholesale changes right away. The dynamic with Grady and Kenny up top is something I really want to see play out."

Lofton's post-Indians career has played out over many a stage. But with the Tribe colors back on his body as he took another look around Jacobs Field, he couldn't help but wonder if this is where the long journey might wrap up.

"I could finish here," he said. "I don't know."

In the meantime, he has work to do.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.