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Close To the Heart
Michael Silver
May 01, 1995
A grandmother's nurturing put Kenny Lofton on the right track, and now the Indians' standout leadoff hitter watches over her
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May 01, 1995

Close To The Heart

A grandmother's nurturing put Kenny Lofton on the right track, and now the Indians' standout leadoff hitter watches over her

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1992

1993

1994

Kenny Lofton

.285

.325

.349

1898

1899

1900

Elmer Flick

.313

.342

.378

Honus Wagner

.305

.359

.381

Source: Elias Sports Bureau

As he fidgets over a plate of seafood fettuccine in a Tucson restaurant, Kenny Lofton, one of baseball's most exciting base runners, averts his soft eyes from the curious gaze of an inquisitor and tries to avoid getting caught in a conversational rundown. At the same time he unwittingly presents a fitting metaphor for his predicament: He is evicting clams, mussels and oysters from their shelters while resolutely attempting to keep from coming out of his shell.

"Controversy is a big nightmare of mine," Lofton says between bites. "I've always tried to watch what I say. There's enough controversy in society. I don't want to be a part of it because controversy starts rumors, and rumors start wrong perceptions. You can't tell the wrong story if there's nothing to tell."

Lofton, 27, the Cleveland Indians' multitalented centerfielder, guards his privacy like Price Waterhouse protects Oscar envelopes. And because he keeps such a low profile off the field, fans know little more than that he is the successor to Rickey Henderson as baseball's best lead-off hitter. In terms of natural athleticism, well-rounded baseball skills and the potential for greatness, he is rivaled only by Seattle Mariner outfielder Ken Griffey Jr. The difference is, Lofton probably has a lower Q-rating than Griffey's shoes.

When he's not chasing down fly balls or legging out base hits, Lofton runs in a small, tight circle and keeps most everyone else at a healthy distance. He is pleasant and relentlessly polite but not necessarily friendly. "I know he can be cold, and I know he can be frigid," says Onesimus (Pops) Strachan, who was one of Lofton's fraternity brothers at Arizona and who remains one of his closest friends. "He's a little bit introverted, but once you get to know the person inside...."

That's the problem. Lofton doesn't want you to know any more than the bare essentials, which themselves make his story intriguing. He was raised by his grandmother, Rosie Person, in the slums of East Chicago, Ind. He was a point guard for an Arizona basketball team that went to the Final Four his junior year and was briefly ranked No. 1 in the country his senior year. He played in only five baseball games in college but was drafted and signed by the Houston Astros when he was 21. In his first six years of pro ball, he vaulted from crude project to major league star.

Last year's strike-shortened season was Lofton's third as a full-time big leaguer, and all he did was win his third consecutive American League stolen base title and his second straight Gold Glove award, bat .349 with a .412 on-base percentage, lead the American League in hits (160), whack 12 homers (double his career total entering last season), tie Kirby Puckett of the Minnesota Twins for the league lead with 13 outfield assists and finish fourth in the MVP voting. He also reached base via hit or walk in all but nine of the Indians' 112 games and was a major reason Cleveland (66-47) was one game out of the Central Division lead when the strike hit.

To those who recall Lofton's early days as a minor leaguer—think Michael Jordan with hair and without the hoopla—the transformation has been astounding. "I remember how raw he was, and I've never seen anybody develop into that type of player that fast," says Milwaukee Brewer manager Phil Garner, who saw Lofton play in the minors. "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 speed, but he got lousy jumps and didn't run the bases well. He didn't read the ball well off the bat, and he didn't read pitchers well. But once he got it all down, he just took off. He has turned into a dominant player."

It's easy to see that Lofton is the man who makes Cleveland's young, talent-laden team click, but figuring out what makes Lofton tick is a much tougher task. Even innocuous subjects, such as whether or not he is a morning person (he isn't), are off-limits. "I keep a lot of things within," he says. "That's just me. I don't want people to know what I'm going to do next."

Lofton's story begins in 1967, on a small, handmade pillow. Infant Kenny, who weighed only three pounds at birth, was so tiny that his mother, Annie, was terrified to hold him. "She was afraid she would drop him," Person recalls, "so I made a little pillow and we carried him around on that."

A teenager at the time of Kenny's birth, Annie returned to high school, and Person raised the baby. She had credentials. Person had raised seven children of her own, plus numerous grandchildren, while living solely on Social Security after her husband, Early Lee Person, a steelworker, died in 1960 of bronchial pneumonia. What's more, Rosie was suffering from glaucoma and going blind.

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