Voters for the Baseball Hall of Fame typically get it right. There’s a few hundred of them, so it’s tough for all of them to be short-sighted about one particular player. But every now and then, someone will slip through the cracks and be left out in the cold. One of the best examples of this is longtime major league outfielder Kenny Lofton, who in his only year on the ballot earned just 18 votes but was deserving of so much more.
Far too often, voters get caught up in looking at numbers and they forget to think about who the player was and what he brought to the field. With Lofton playing in an era defined by power and remembered for the absurd amount of home runs that were hit, the speed, defense, and intangibles he brought to teams that made them better were somehow overlooked.
“On one hand, Lofton could be seen as a catalyst who magically sparked his teams into playoff contention, but others could say that it was simply a case of top playoff contenders repeatedly seeing him as the final piece of their puzzle.”
Despite lacking a World Series ring, Lofton was always playing on winning teams. He went to the postseason 11 times in his career, which is not a coincidence, luck, or happenstance. It’s because he had an impressive skill set that made every team he was ever on a better team.
He even won a championship in the Pacific Coast League in his final minor league season, further evidence that Lofton knew how to play winning baseball, which should be worth something to Hall of Fame voters.
Lofton was such a phenomenal athlete that baseball was originally an afterthought for him. He actually went to the University of Arizona on a basketball scholarship. He was even part of a Final Four team in 1988 while serving as the backup point guard to Steve Kerr. Lofton would go on to be one of just two people to play in both a Final Four and a World Series.
“In strength and agility drills, he just killed it. He’s a guy who could have played pro football or basketball or baseball.”
Bruce Fraser, Arizona basketball teammate
Baseball was such an afterthought for him that he had just one official at-bat in college. But the Houston Astros were so taken with his speed and athleticism that they took a chance on drafting him, even though he stayed at Arizona to finish his degree and baseball career. But once he finished college and could focus on baseball full time, he rapidly moved through the minors, showing an unbelievable amount of improvement in a short period of time.
With a little instruction on the proper ways to bunt and steal bases, Lofton was able to play to his strengths and become an impact player in almost every part of the game other than hitting home runs, which unfortunately for him, was the focal point of the game at that time.
But with so much emphasis on power, it’s forgotten that during the 90s, Lofton went to six straight All-Star games, led the American League in stolen bases five straight years, and won four consecutive Gold Gloves. When he entered free agency following the 1997 season, he was the most sought-after player on the market.
“I remember how raw he was, and I’ve never seen anybody develop into that type of player that fast. He went from a guy who could hardly get the ball past the infield to a guy who could hit the ball consistently. He always had good speed, but got lousy jumps and didn’t run the bases well. He has turned into a dominant player.”
But more than a half-decade of being one of the most impactful players in the game and more than a decade of helping teams reach the postseason somehow wasn’t enough for Hall of Fame voters. Even the fact that he was a clean player who was never linked to performance-enhancing drugs didn’t spur the voters to support Lofton.
The belief by baseball historians that he was both the fastest player and the best bunter of the 90s somehow doesn’t carry much weight either. Lofton himself knows that he lost his spot on the Hall of Fame ballot because he played during the steroid era but wasn’t among the users putting up outrageous power numbers.
“With me being off the ballot, what I accomplished during the steroid era meant nothing. You look at the people who voted for the Hall of Fame. I think there might have been 600. They still voted for people who were cheating the game.
“It boggles my mind that the people you know cheated, who admitted they cheated, are still on the Hall of Fame ballot. That is sad. It’s really sad for baseball.”
To be fair, it’s debatable whether Lofton deserves a place in Cooperstown. But there’s no denying that he at least deserved the debate. If only more voters forgot about the numbers and looked at the player and how he helped his team win.
After all, are players on the field to put up impressive statistics or to help their team win games? Kenny Lofton did the latter, and because of it, he deserves some recognition.