Lofton keeps on ticking, delivers huge performance for Indians

CLEVELAND -- If you think you've gotten to know Kenny Lofton better over the past week, it's no illusion. The TBS network keeps running that DHL commercial -- the one poking fun at Lofton's peripatetic career -- on a constant loop. The spot is almost as tired as the ad featuring the guy who's falling in love with his car's navigational system.

As the folks in Houston, Atlanta, San Francisco, Chicago, Pittsburgh, New York, Philadelphia and Texas can attest, Lofton usually doesn't hang around long enough to be more than a casual acquaintance. He'll sign his one-year deal, contribute his 150 hits, 30 steals and a little edge in the clubhouse, then hit the road for another team in a different town.

If there's a port he can always call home, it's Cleveland. In the early 1990s, Lofton was the fleet and daring catalyst wreaking havoc in front of Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez and Albert Belle. More than a decade later, he's in his third tour with the franchise and evoking memories of powerhouse Indians teams past.

It's a role that suits him well.

The Indians had a ton of fun in Game 1 of the American League Division Series, spraying line drives all over Jacobs Field on the way to a 12-3 victory over the Yankees. But it's fair to assume no one reveled in the outburst more than Lofton, the team's resident sage and grandfather figure.

When he wasn't banging out three hits and knocking in four runs, Lofton was tying Rickey Henderson's record with his 33rd career postseason steal. The appreciative sellout crowd serenaded him with cries of "Ken-ny! Ken-ny!"

It was enough to make a 40-year-old vagabond feel downright spry.

"It's kind of awesome,'' Lofton said. "Sometimes I hear it. Then once I get in the box, I don't hear it no more.''

The Indians, who went 36-20 in August and September to pull away from Detroit and win the American League Central, are a fashionable darkhorse pick to crash the inevitable Boston-New York "East Coast bias'' ALCS. If they advance, it'll be more a reflection of talent than postseason experience.

Lofton and C.C. Sabathia, Thursday's starter, are the only Indians who were around for the team's loss to Seattle in the 2001 Division Series. Only five other Indians -- Josh Barfield, Joe Borowski, Aaron Fultz, Chris Gomez and Paul Byrd -- have any postseason games on their resume.

But the Indians are buoyed by a deep, persistent lineup, two elite starters in Sabathia and Fausto Carmona, and a local populace ready to pump up the volume and go crazy in response to anything positive. Apparently, the rally towels in Cleveland are more effective than the ones they're handing out in Philadelphia.

"The fans are excited and getting fired up about what's going on,'' Lofton said. "This city needs a championship.''

The first postseason game in Cleveland in six years had an element of the surreal from the outset, when Yankees first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz arrived at the park, collided with a YES network cameraman and rolled his ankle.

Johnny Damon, the first batter of the game, hit a homer down the line only to have umpire Jim Wolf -- stationed in right field precisely for occasions such as this -- wave the ball foul. An umpire conference and a reversal quickly followed, and you got the sense the Yankees might be in for a big night.

But it was not to be, as Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Hideki Matsui went 0-for-12 on the evening. If there was one positive, their combined struggles and the ineffectiveness of Chien-Ming Wang took the focus off Alex Rodriguez. With two popouts and a pair of walks, A-Rod was strictly an innocent bystander to the carnage.

It was enough to make Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James, a lifelong New York fan, spin his Yankees cap around backwards and leave Jacobs Field early. You could only wonder how ugly it would have gotten if James were playing for the Boston Celtics and the scene were taking place at Fenway Park.

The Indians won despite a subpar outing from Sabathia, who threw a whopping 114 pitches in five innings and walked six batters. That's more than he walked in the entire months of June (three) and July (four).

Sabathia denied having problems with umpire Bruce Froemming's small strike zone, and pitched out of a bases loaded jam in the fifth inning to protect a seemingly fragile 4-3 lead.

The fans are excited and getting fired up about what's going on. This city needs a championship.

--Kenny Lofton

"It was [lack of] command,'' Sabathia said. "Bruce did a great job behind the plate. I was fired up. I was trying not to throw hard and I looked up there a couple of times and I was throwing 97.''

The Indians are a different team from the club that went 0-6 against New York during the regular season. They received a big lift from young second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera and right fielder Franklin Gutierrez down the stretch, and the geezer in left field proved to be quite valuable as well.

When the Indians rescued Lofton from Texas before the trade deadline, they were looking for offense from an outfielder other than Grady Sizemore. Manager Eric Wedge initially tried Lofton at the leadoff spot, then dropped him to seventh and shifted Sizemore back to the top. That combination ultimately helped the Indians take off.

When the young Cleveland players see Lofton run the bases with abandon and grind out at-bats, it's like watching an old Indians team photo spring to life.

"It makes all of us know what that whole team and that whole era was in the '90s,'' said first baseman Ryan Garko. "For us to be able to lean on a guy like that -- who's been through just about anything you could go through in this city in a baseball sense -- it's been great having him here.''

Lofton, who has 2,428 hits, 1,528 runs, 622 stolen bases and a .372 on-base percentage in his career, is a guy who should receive some Hall of Fame consideration when he finally hangs it up. But all that moving around won't help his cause.

When he takes a final inventory, New York will probably qualify as the worst experience of his career. Lofton played 83 forgettable games for the Yankees in 2004, and regrettably threw in his two cents earlier this year after Gary Sheffield made news with his Joe Torre-favors-white-players-over-blacks remarks.

Still, Lofton derived no special satisfaction from beating the Yankees. If he harbored a grudge against former employers, he'd be mad at half of baseball.

"I've been to every city there is in the States, I think,'' Lofton said.

But there's only one place where everybody knows his face and cheers his name. Of all Lofton's stops, Cleveland feels most like home.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.