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."