Something magical happened at Progressive Field on Saturday night.
In a beautiful, star-studded pregame ceremony, longtime Cleveland Indians leadoff hitter and center fielder Kenny Lofton was inducted into the Indians Hall of Fame.
For anyone who is too young to remember the 90s, Lofton was the archetypal dynamic leadoff hitter—a latter-day Rickey Henderson.
From 1992-96, he hit .316 with an .820 OPS, averaging 78 steals and 129 runs per 162 games.
Then, of course, there was his extraordinary defense. Lofton won a quartet of Gold Gloves in his career.
Total Zone estimates that his fielding was worth at least a full win in six different seasons, and gives him a career mark of 115 in center field (8.7 TZ/150).
But to Tribe fans, he was more than just the guy who racked up 975 runs, 1,512 hits, and 452 steals in an Indians uniform, or the dynamic athlete who regularly slammed into the Jacobs Field padding to make the play (“The Catch,” Lofton’s most famous play, was immortalized in a bobble head doll that was given away at the game).
Great as Lofton was as a player (and probably still is—he was worth 2.8 WAR in 2007 before a lack of demand for his services forced him to retire and he appeared to still be perfectly in shape this weekend), Clevelanders adored him most as a symbol.
The Indians teams of the mid-to-late 90s—especially the 1999 squad—featured some of the most intimidating lineups ever assembled outside of my Nintendo. Lofton wasn’t just the face of the franchise or the guy who made the most highlight reels. As the leadoff man, he was the catalyst for one of the best offenses of all-time.
To us, he epitomizes an era when it was fun to be a Cleveland sports fan (except during the playoffs).
And so, while I was surprised at both the size and the enthusiasm of the crowd that showed up a half-hour early to see the Indians fall to the Twins, the shock wore off pretty quickly.
Lofton wasn’t the only star from the recent past to make an appearance at the ceremony. While the support they got didn’t quite match the ovation received by Bob Feller (“the greatest right-handed pitcher of all time,” emcee and Tribe radio announcer Tom Hamilton declared), glory days figures Charles Nagy, Sandy Alomar, and Mike Hargrove were greeted much more enthusiastically than old-timers Sam McDowell and Andre Thornton.
The momentous roar of the crowd as Lofton marched down the field was truly inspiring—it was the most energy I’d seen in the Prog since the Tribe last made the playoffs in 2007. Coincidentally, that was the last time Lofton suited up in an Indians uniform.
Before that, the last time I remember so much excitement surging through the stadium was 2001 when, on Opening Day, the team set a record by selling out for 455 consecutive games. They came to see one of the best teams in baseball—oh, and Lofton was there too.
It wasn’t the biggest crowd I’ve seen at the Prog this year—I estimated that attendance was lower than it was when Stephen Strasburg came to make his second career start in June, or when visiting Yankees fans flooded the stadium two weeks ago in hopes of witnessing Alex Rodriguez’ 600th home run.
But unlike those games, the seats were filled with fans who really cared about the Indians—even if they came for Kenny Lofton, they stayed for guys like Jordan Brown (whose lack of athleticism in center field was particularly noticeable to fans holding bobble heads of Lofton’s famous jumping catch).
Yes, we lost, and it wasn’t a very good game. But in the Progressive Field bleachers, we were transported back to a time when we weren’t the 'Mistake on the Lake.'