Dotting the Atlanta cityscape are clever billboards that capture
the essence of the 1997 Braves. A picture of manager Bobby Cox
in profile, gazing out on some downtown traffic jam, is
accompanied by the words MACARTHUR, PATTON, COX. For righthander
Greg Maddux, eyes cold and bloodless as he starts his delivery,
the sign reads MATISSE, MONET, MADDUX. Centerfielder Kenny
Lofton was delighted when he first spotted the billboard in his
honor, which reads MACH, WARP, LOFTON. Unlike the other Braves
plastered on signs throughout the city, you don't see Lofton's
face, only his feet as he bolts down a base path. The message is
graphic: Let the gams begin.
"Everybody thought he would come here and be as dominant as he
had been in Cleveland," says Atlanta third baseman Chipper
Jones, referring to the March trade that brought Lofton and
lefty Alan Embree to the Braves for outfielders Marquis Grissom
and David Justice. "When you put the hopes and aspirations of
the National League champions on one man's shoulders, that's a
lot of pressure."
Atlanta's hope and glory remain its superb starting rotation,
but Lofton and his legs--when he has been healthy--have changed
the way the Braves can win and have diversified an offense that
has sometimes spun its wheels. Houston Astros manager Larry
Dierker was impressed during Atlanta's three-game sweep of his
team in their Division Series, which amounted to little more
than a bye week for the Braves. "That team used to be an 'Earl
Weaver two walks then a three-run homer' type club," Dierker
says. "Then they go out and get [outfielder Michael] Tucker and
[utilityman Keith] Lockhart and especially Lofton. Now when they
face a righty with dominating stuff like [Houston ace] Darryl
Kile, who can shut anyone down, they can scratch out runs."
Lofton is a classic leadoff hitter who could bat .320 with a
toothpick. In Game 1 against the Astros, the only one of the
three that wasn't a blowout, there was an immediate Lofton
billboard moment. He led off the first by dumping a 150-foot
double into left, tagged on a fly to medium right--a play that
took as much audacity as it did speed--and then scored on a
sacrifice fly. The Braves had two hits in the game, none after
the first pitch of the second inning, but won 2-1.
Then in Games 2 and 3 Lofton contributed nothing. He never
disappears completely, but because he is such a presumptive
threat, he is as conspicuous in failure as he is in success. He
finished the series 2 for 13 with two runs while being thrown
out on his only attempted steal and getting picked off first.
This was a microcosm of his season, three games that exemplified
everything that has happened to him in his first, and perhaps
last, year with the Braves.
Lofton, who is a free-agent-in-waiting, hit .333, batted .351
with runners in scoring position, reached base almost 41% of the
time and led the Braves in steals, with 27, during the regular
season. But the attention fell squarely not on what he did but
on what he didn't do. Lofton's stolen base total was more warped
than warp, considering he had 48 fewer thefts than in 1996.
Lofton, who had averaged 65 stolen bases in his five seasons
with the Indians, also was thrown out a league-high 20 times; as
late as Sept. 2 he was barely a .500 base stealer at 21 for 41.
Plus it sometimes seemed as if he had taken the four Gold Gloves
he won in Cleveland and had them bronzed. Lofton went from being
the best centerfielder in the American League to no better than
the third best outfielder on the Braves. "Kenny's still a fine
outfielder," lefthander Tom Glavine says. "He's made some great
plays. He's also maybe not made some plays that people have seen
him make in the past."
Lofton attributes his struggles on the bases and on defense to a
groin muscle pull he sustained while running the bases on June
17. When he went on the disabled list the next day, the Braves
won 12 of their next 16 games. Lofton reaggravated the injury on
his first day back and missed three more weeks, but this time
Atlanta stumbled along at 9-10 in his absence. With Lofton the
messages often are mixed.
"I've been focused on," Lofton says. "I got recognized for what
I didn't do compared to what I did last year. And I didn't get
recognized for the transition to this league. People forgot that
I'd been in the other league for five years. For a guy in the
middle of the lineup, I don't think there's as much to deal with
as I've had to deal with."
True. There's a laundry list for a centerfielder-leadoff
hitter-base stealer who changes leagues. On defense Lofton has
had to learn new hitters and new parks. As a hitter he has been
swamped with studying the 100 or so pitchers he never has seen
before. As a base stealer he has had to pick up the pitchers'
motions, their moves to first, their tendencies to throw over.
Lofton obviously can be a quick study--he hit .395 in April--but
the intense concentration took its toll. "I couldn't let my
guard down, because I had so much to learn, and mentally it
started to have an effect," he says.
When he reached his basestealing nadir in early September,
Lofton decided he needed visual aids to continue his education.
He brought tapes from last season on a West Coast trip. He
watched himself exploding with his first step. He realized that,
because of the wonky groin muscle, his power now wasn't coming
until his third or fourth stride. After the tape sessions and as
the pain subsided through September, Lofton's stolen base
percentage crept higher, although his stealing all six bases he
attempted after Sept. 2 didn't exactly qualify as running wild.
"Now," Lofton insists, "I'm where I need to be."
He wasn't completely fit for the 11 games he played against
Florida in the regular season, in which he batted a desultory
.261, struck out 13 times in 46 at bats and was caught stealing
thrice in five tries. The fact that the Marlins won eight of 12
games from the Braves this year should have focused Lofton and
his teammates heading into the National League Championship
Series. Atlanta can't expect to keep hitting .217, as it did in
sweeping Houston, and cruise into the World Series. Lofton has
to provide that old spark at the top of the order. "He's a
catalyst with great athletic ability, a guy who can be
disruptive," says Gary Hughes, Florida's vice president of
player personnel, who was scouting the Braves in the playoffs.
Lofton hasn't been disruptive to the same extent on or,
apparently, off the field as he was in Cleveland, where there
was some throat-clearing among the Indians early in the season
about improved clubhouse atmosphere since Lofton and Albert
Belle had taken their leaves. "He's come over here and been real
good," Glavine says. "We've all heard the Kenny Lofton stories
about what kind of guy he may or may not be. You name it, we've
heard it. In a clubhouse that's been really good, where everyone
got along well, you worry about a guy like that. But Kenny's
The blur that is Lofton on the field will again come into sharp
focus in the National League Championship Series. Florida
catcher Charles Johnson threw out 47.5% of would-be base
stealers in the regular season, but if Lofton is right, he won't
be deterred from trying. Lofton versus Johnson will be one of
those games within a game that baseball offers so lovingly every
fewer than he had in 1996