By the end of next season—or maybe sooner—the Cleveland Indians' John Hart will have either stamped himself (once again) as baseball's most inventive general manager or dug a hole for himself the size of Jacobs Field. On Monday afternoon, in a $30 million spendathon, he brought back one former Indian who was nearly invisible during last year's postseason and added one faded superstar who, it could be said, should have disappeared years ago. Welcome back to Cleveland, Kenny Lofton, your leadoff spot is waiting. And welcome, Dwight Gooden, we're not sure what awaits you.
The blockbuster moves certainly put baseball back in the news. Just before last season's opener, Hart traded centerfielder Lofton, who had sparked a baseball renaissance in Cleveland, and pitcher Alan Embree to the Atlanta Braves. Hart dealt Lofton, he said, because he was afraid the basestealing defensive specialist would sign with another team after the 1997 season, and he wanted to be sure he got something in return. He did: Outfielder Marquis Grissom (.262, 12 home runs) and designated hitter/outfielder David Justice (.329, 33 HR, 101 RBIs) helped Cleveland reach the World Series. Now Hart has gotten the 30-year-old Lofton back for three years at $8 million per. Expensive but not outlandish by today's standards. (Somebody give Willie Mays a cold compress.)
But does Hart get back the same player? Two seasons ago Lofton was considered the game's premier leadoff man. While he hit .333 last year, he missed 39 games with leg injuries and stole only 27 bases in 47 attempts. In the postseason, when he hit .175, he looked like the Lost Leadoff Man.
Gooden has seemed lost as well. Hart signed him to a two-year deal worth $5,675 million, a mind-boggling sum for an inconsistent 33-year-old who was banned for the '95 season for substance abuse. Gooden may have some magic in him, as he did when he threw a no-hitter at Yankee Stadium in May 1996. But it's just as probable that he's washed up.
Hart may have made his shrewdest move in giving up Grissom and righty Jeff Juden to the Milwaukee Brewers for righthanded starter Ben McDonald and relievers Ron Villone and Doug Fetters, who was then dealt to Oakland for pitcher Steve Karsay. In nine seasons the 6'7" McDonald has yet to be more than the poor, poor, poor man's Randy Johnson. But he has the potential to win 20. Don't bet against it happening on a team with Hart.
As a point guard at Grinnell (Iowa) High, Jeff Clement needed to travel only a few miles to observe the bizarro basketball being played at Grinnell College. Whereas his high school team played hard-nosed man-to-man and worked patiently for the open shot, the Division III Pioneers favored a style best expressed by the title of coach David Arseneault's instructional video: Running to Extremes. They pressed nonstop, aimed to squeeze off a three-pointer every 12 seconds and expended so much energy gambling and gunning that Arseneault turned his lineup over minute by minute, like a hockey coach. In 1994-95, Clement's senior year in high school, Grinnell set an NCAA record by averaging 115.4 points a game. "It was electrifying to watch," Clement says, "but it crossed my mind that I wouldn't be able to play that way." Nevertheless, he signed on with Arseneault and started flingin'.
And he hasn't stopped. Last season, as a sophomore, the 5'10" guard, who averaged 13.5 points a game as a high school senior, poured in 22.3 a game and set an all-divisions mark with 16 threes against Monmouth (Ill.) College. That record stood until Dec. 3, when Clement cashed in 17 treys (on 38 tries) while scoring 58 points in a 137-108 home win over Clarke College of Dubuque, Iowa. (He took one two-pointer and missed it.) At week's end he was averaging 32.0 points a game. "Jeff just gets the ball, sees the basket and shoots," Arseneault says of Clement, a gifted athlete who fires up baskets righthanded and plays a lefthanded centerfield for the Pioneers in the spring. "It's pretty cold-blooded."
When Arseneault arrived at Grinnell in 1989, he installed his hyper system to keep kids from dropping off the Pioneers because they never played. He now goes 20 deep—on overnight away games in the Midwest Conference, of which there are two, he's limited to 15—and seldom does anyone play more than 20 minutes. Against Clarke, Clement was on the floor for all of 24 and twice asked not to go back in because he was too winded. "Toward the end of the game my knees were shaking," Clement says. "And then I just felt, Wow, this is great."