May 31 – Happy Birthday Kenny Lofton
George Steinbrenner probably stopped being a big Bernie Williams’ fan during the 1998 off-season. That was when his All Star center fielder successfully leveraged a free agent offer from the hated Red Sox to get the Boss to reluctantly OK an eight year contract for Bern-Baby-Bern, costing about 100 million Yankee dollars. When the team won the next two World Series after that signing, Steinbrenner must have felt a bit better and in fact, Bernie continued his All Star caliber play for the first four years of his new deal. But in 2003, Williams got hurt and his numbers dropped precipitously. After Florida beat New York in that year’s World Series, it was George Steinbrenner who ordered the Yankee front-office to go out and sign free agent, Kenny Lofton because the Boss felt he was the guy who could replace Williams as the Yankee center fielder. Joe Torre, however, had other ideas.
Lofton was indeed a great player. During most of first decade as a big leaguer, he had been the starting center fielder in Cleveland, where he had won four Gold Gloves, five AL stolen base titles, and averaged over .300. He also had a much stronger arm than Bernie and though he lacked Williams power, he was a run-scoring machine.
At the time New York signed him, however, Lofton was 36 years old. He was also two years older than Williams. He had failed to hit .300 his previous four seasons and had played on five different teams during the three previous years. Kenny’s best days were clearly behind him by the time he put on the pinstripes.
Torre therefore felt justified in sticking with Williams as his starting center fielder in 2004, but when Bernie did not have the bounce back year he was hoping for, the “play Lofton” lobby in the Yankee front office and media grew louder. Lofton himself tried not to stir the controversy, insisting he would do anything he was told, even park cars at Yankee Stadium, just to be a part of the team. He kept telling reporters he joined the Yankees to win a ring. But before too long, subtle complaints about his lack of playing time were finding their way to the media.
In the end, Lofton played just 83 games during his one season as a Yankee. After the Yankees suffered their historic collapse against the Red Sox in the 2004 ALCS, they traded Lofton to Philadelphia for a relief pitcher and probably would have traded Bernie too if they could find a team willing to pay a lions share of the $12 million they still owed him.
Kenny Lofton stuck around for three more seasons, retiring after the 2007 season. He ended his long and distinguished career with a .299 batting average, over 2,400 hits, 622 lifetime stolen bases but no rings.He was born on May 31, 1967, in East Chicago, Indiana.
Lofton shares today as a birthday with this former Yankee relief pitcher.