Monday, October 22, 2007

Feeling for No. 7


There's a list of things inside my mind I promise myself I will never, ever do in this lifetime...

Live in Gary, Ind. Eat a Twinkie. Watch "Laguna Beach."

On Sunday night, however, I broke one promise. I felt sorry for a professional athlete. I felt remorse for Cleveland outfielder Kenny Lofton.

When his Indians completed their collapse from a 3-1 lead in the ALCS over Boston, losing 11-2 Sunday, another shot at winning his first World Series had passed Lofton by.

I have two baseball jerseys hanging in my closet (both of which were given to me by my cousin, Pete, a former college player). There's my Cal Ripken jersey, and my Kenny Lofton jersey from when he was with the Indians (the first time).

In this age of steroid use and sluggers admiring their every home run swing, Lofton is a reminder of the past. He's skinnier than a lamp post, he still steals bases at the ripe age of 40, he always plays hard and he doesn't make excuses.

During the precocious Indians' run to within a game of the World Series, Lofton was the veteran presence in the clubhouse, the guy the youngsters who make up the team could turn to for advice on how to handle the pressure of October.

'Cuz, man, has Lofton been here before.

Sunday's loss completed Lofton's 17th season in the majors. He's played on a whopping 11 teams (and probably owned 11 different houses and paid nine states' taxes — he's played for two Pennsylvania and California teams). And he's come agonizingly close to winning a World Series ring, only to fall just short every time — often in heartbreaking fashion.

Let me start from the beginning...

In 1995 Lofton was a part of a Cleveland team that went an unbelievable 100-44 and advanced to the World Series only to lose three one-run games in a six-game WS loss to Atlanta.

In 1996 Cleveland fell to Baltimore in the first round of the playoffs, losing 4-3 in 12 innings in Game 4 after the Orioles tied the game with a run in the ninth inning.

In 1997 Lofton was with Atlanta when the Braves lost to the surprising Marlins in five games, again being a part of a one-run loss in the clincher, a 2-1 Florida win.

In 1998 Lofton was back with the Indians. And — again — his team lost in five games in the divisional round, as the Indians lost the final two games at home to the Yankees.

The story was even worse in 1999, when the Indians went up 2-0 on the Red Sox only to drop three straight, including Game 5 at home, 12-8. Cleveland's pitching staff gave up 44 runs in the three losses — including 23 in Game 4. At this point, I wouldn't have blamed Lofton for throwing his hands in the air and yelling, "I give up!!!!"

But Lofton's Indians were back in the divisional round in 2001 and found themselves with a 2-1 lead... only to lose the final two games. By then, Lofton probably could have made a case that the league was fixing the playoff series in which he played.

As hard as this is to believe, Lofton's postseason fortunes got even worse when he left Cleveland after the 2001 season. In 2002, after a brief tenure with the White Sox, he ended up on the Giants, who advanced to the World Series. San Francisco led the series 3-2 and was up 5-0 in the seventh inning of Game 6, just nine outs away from jubilation. But Anaheim scored three times in the seventh and the eighth innings to win 6-5 and then won Game 7 4-1.

The "Heartbreak Kid" then migrated to the field where heartbreak comes with your ticket — Wrigley Field. After a brief stint with the Pirates, Lofton found himself manning center field in front of the ivy wall as Steve Bartman interfered with the foul ball and shortstop Alex Gonzalez muffed the routine grounder in 2003. The Cubs blew Game 6 of the NLCS (in which they had a three-run, eighth-inning lead) and lost Game 7, also at home, to the Marlins.

Unfortunately for Lofton, that heartbreak wasn't even as bad as what he'd feel in 2004 as a member of the Yankees. I'm sure you've heard the story before. Lofton's Yanks were up 3-0 on the Red Sox. No team had ever rebounded from a 3-0 deficit in a series. The Yankees were three outs away from the Fall Classic in Game 4 with Mariano Rivera on the mound. But then everything fell apart. Maybe, however, the collapse wasn't a big surprise to Lofton.

Finally in 2005 Lofton's team — the Phillies — fell just short of the playoffs, saving Lofton the heartbreak for at least one October. And when Lofton's Dodgers were swept in the divisional round by the Mets last season, it couldn't have been that painful for Lofton.

But then came 2007. Lofton played more than half the season with the Rangers, a team that had no shot of going to the playoffs. It appeared it'd just be another 162-game baseball season for No. 7, a season that allowed his free time in October to go fishing or simply relax.

But, alas, Lofton was traded back to the Indians, whose fans adore Lofton, and the fight for the playoffs was on. Cleveland separated itself from Detroit and cruised into October. Then it surprised many pundits by rolling past the Yankees in four games. And it won three straight games over the Red Sox to take a commanding 3-1 series lead with Game 5 at Jacobs Field.

The stage was set for Lofton to return to the World Series with his favorite team, for Lofton to be the veteran leader of the first World Series champion in Cleveland since 1948 — the longest drought outside of, well, you know.

What a story it would have been. Lofton, a legend in Cleveland, could have retired peacefully, with his ring hugging one of his fingers — there for life.

Instead, Lofton was in the middle of another collapse, another heartbreak. On Sunday he was called out at second on a base hit off the Green Monster in the fifth inning (although replays clearly showed he was safe). That out was followed by two hits, which would have at least tied the game 3-3.

Then in the seventh inning he was held up at third base on a single down the left-field line that he should have scored on to knot the score. But the third-base coach clearly put his hands up, signally Lofton to stop (how symbolic was that of his career?), and the next batter hit into a double play to end Cleveland's threat.

Boston scored twice in the bottom half of the frame and six more times in the eighth to ice the Game 7 victory.

It's impossible to identify another pro athlete who has suffered through as many postseason disappointments — almost all of them heart-wrenching — as Lofton.

Eleven appearances in the playoffs. Two World Series. No rings.

After the game, a politically correct Lofton said, "At least I had the opportunity."

But the words must have felt hollow. Or they might have been recycled from 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 and '06.

After all, the position Lofton sat in late Sunday night was all too familiar. Because of that, I feel sorry for No. 7.


Sportsattitude said...

Great post. He was never more of a "true pro" than in the Red Sox series when he held up on that stop sign at third and didn't ignore the signal. Maybe one or two more years still in him?

Jake Lloyd said...

I hope so. He's got to think the Indians will have another shot next season, although it will be difficult in that division. His body doesn't seem to be wearing down, though. I'd say he's got a few more years in him.