There are some names that are easily associated with Major League Baseball's postseason. One supposes that guys like Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Reggie Jackson are the obvious ones.
But how about Kenny Lofton? During his 17-year career, the speedy center fielder played in October with six different teams and in a total of 95 games. According to Baseball-Reference.com, only seven players have appeared in more postseason games.
These days, Lofton mainly finds himself busy with his film production company, a project called "FilmPool" that was started in 2004. But courtesy of Major League Baseball, he was made available for an interview on Wednesday in which he noted he'll be doing the same thing as the rest of us this October: keeping his TV fixed on TBS, MLB Network and FOX to make sure nothing is missed.
The sight of the postseason so far has to be what went down at PNC Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates, on Tuesday night. The Pirates won their first playoff game since 1992 in beating the Cincinnati Reds 6-2, and the crowd was in a frenzy all night.
Lofton spent half a season with the Pirates back in 2003. In his time there, he doesn't recall seeing anything like what happened on Tuesday.
"You had a little bit of excitement when the opening of the stadium [came on Opening Day]. It was pretty exciting when that happened. But other than that, no," said Lofton. "The team had been waiting for a playoff atmosphere—a playoff game—since '92, and that was at the old stadium. They’ve got the new stadium now, and this is the first time they’ve been in the playoffs in the new stadium, so the atmosphere was just going to go crazy."
That indeed proved to be the case. The Pirates drew over 40,000 fans for the first time all season for the National League Wild Card game, and it was loud. The crowd even seemed to get to Reds starter Johnny Cueto at one point, as he had a ball fall out of his mitt and one of his pitches leave the yard shortly after while the crowd was chanting "Cue-to! Cue-to!"
As Lofton put it: "You could see in that stadium what Pittsburgh had been waiting for."
While Lofton only spent half a season in Pittsburgh, he of course spent the bulk of his career in Cleveland with the Indians. He played parts of 10 seasons there, and in 10 postseason series with the team.
Lofton wasn't surprised to see the Indians make it as far as the American League Wild Card game, noting that it was clear that the opportunity to earn a playoff berth was there and that the Tribe only needed to get on a roll to attain it. Obviously, they did, going 21-6 in September and wrapping things up with a 10-game winning streak.
But the Indians, alas, were eliminated on Wednesday night. The Tampa Bay Rays beat them 4-0 to put an end to the Tribe's roll. For them, it's now all about how to keep it up.
For that, Lofton had some perspective. It's all about continuing to add pieces to the puzzle over the winter, and that's a process that must not be simplified.
"If you're just signing people just to sign people, that doesn’t work," said Lofton. "You have to find the loopholes in your lineup or your pitching staff that you need to close. Once you start doing that on a consistent basis, that will show the fans and the team that you’re willing to do what it takes to try to get a winner on the field."
Getting the fans to come out again is something that would appear to be easier said than done in Cleveland.
The Indians brought in Terry Francona to manage the team and spent money to bring in Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn last winter, and their efforts paid off on the field. Yet attendance at Progressive Field was still lacking. The place was rocking on Wednesday night, but the Indians drew fewer fans in 2013 than they did in 2012, according to Baseball-Reference.com.
Lofton, however, was quick to note that there's hope even without a deep run in the postseason.
"You can’t say that because they didn’t win a championship, the fans aren’t going to come out," said Lofton. "I think the fans will start to see from years before that the team is getting better. And if they want to understand how to support the team, [coming out] is the best way to do it. If the team is starting to move forward in a good direction, the fans need to get behind it. And I think that’s what the city of Cleveland will do."
Among Lofton's former teams—all 11 of them—the Indians and Pirates weren't the only two to make the postseason this year. The Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers also made it, and will be squaring off against each other in the National League Division Series.
Lofton had some advice for Braves hitters when it comes to going up against the seemingly invincible duo of Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke.
"I think my mindset would be to get aggressive with those guys," said Lofton. "You want to keep your opportunities to be able to try to get runners on base any way you can, and usually late in the count those guys are pretty tough with their breaking balls. You have to try to get them early and often."
Lofton has a point. When he was ahead of hitters in 2013, Kershaw limited them to a .298 OPS. When he was ahead of hitters, Greinke limited them to a .361 OPS. Relying on working the count against them can be dangerous.
Lofton also had a notion for Braves pitchers.
"The thing about it is that Matt Kemp is not playing and Andre Ethier is suspect," said Lofton. "Those guys [Braves pitchers] need to understand that the power you thought the Dodgers were going to have, they don’t have that. You have to go right at these guys understanding that they don’t have the right lineup."
Lofton then warned: "Since you’re not sure when these guys [Kemp and Ethier] might be back, you don’t want to go out there and make this a long series. You want to try to get this series over as quick as possible, because you don’t know what’s going to happen."
When looking at the playoff field as a whole, however, Lofton does have some favorites.
"In the American League, it’s going to be probably Detroit," he said.
But as for the Senior Circuit, this is where a drumroll is needed.
"In the National League, it’s kinda tough. I like the Dodgers," he said, and then paused. "But Pittsburgh is playing well. That’s the team you have to watch out for."
Lofton's reasoning: "They have some great pitching and they have timely hitting right now. And again, I’ve always said if a team gets on a roll in the playoffs, you never know. In my opinion, that’s my feeling I’m getting from Pittsburgh. They’re on a roll."
Lofton played on two World Series teams: the 1995 Indians and 2002 San Francisco Giants. The '95 Indians finished 20-9 before going to the Fall Classic. Likewise, the '02 Giants finished 18-8.
Point being: You might want to listen to Lofton when he feels like a team is on a roll.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com. Quotes obtained firsthand.