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JIM MURRAY

Indians Missing a Spark

October 26, 1995|JIM MURRAY

CLEVELAND — "Brute strength always conquers in the end."

Oh yeah?!

I forget who it was who first uttered those deathless words, whether it was Ovid or Von Runstedt or, perhaps, Attila the Hun. But the Cleveland Indians came into this World Series as the Big Boppers, the 50-homer, 126-RBI Albert Belle, the 31-homer, 107-RBI Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome and five other .300 hitters.

The Series was supposed to be a Tom and Jerry cartoon. The Indians were supposed to be the heavies, the muscle guys, the hit men. Atlanta was supposed to be wily rabbit, narrowly evading obliteration or destruction through guile and whimsy. The prognosis was Cleveland would win its games 16-4, Atlanta would win its games 3-2. It was to be a classic American League sluggers against National League pitching and fielding.

In a sense, that hasn't developed. And the Indians went 3-to-1 down in the Series on Wednesday night not because their power shorted out. Belle homered. Ramirez homered. Sorrento doubled. Thome doubled.

They lost--and entered the desperate zone in this World Series--because their ignition didn't show up.

The Cleveland Indians won their only game to date in this Series not because of the fence-busters, the swing-from-the-heel corps but because of a fleet, devious, calculating pest of a ballplayer, a hit-em-where-they-ain't type, a guy who doesn't scare you to death with a bat in his hands but he might beat you to death with his feet.

They lost because Kenny Lofton, in a sense, didn't show up this night--or at least he didn't get on base. When Kenny Lofton doesn't get on base, the Indians bite the dust. As Reggie Jackson would say, he's the straw that stirs the drink.

He may trail the bopper brigade in the voting for MVP this year, but if they're handing out awards for guys who make the opponents sweat and makes them fidget and fuss and throw to the wrong base and come out of their comfort zone, they might consider instead of the 220-pound mastodons this fleet compact ballplayer who makes an art form of pestering the opposition into fatal mistakes.

In a way, Kenny Lofton is the real instrument of terror for the Indians. He is kind of like the scout for the cavalry. He forages ahead of the main force, scans the terrain, probes for weak spots, sets the tone for the attack. Custer would have died in bed if he had one.

What he does involves risk. Risk baseball invites criticism. In Game 1, for instance, Kenny Lofton came in for some serious frowning upon from the baseball purists. In the ninth inning of that game, he set sail around the bases with his team trailing, 3-1, and two out and almost didn't stop running till he had drawn a poor throw and scored from second with the ball in the infield the whole time.

Now, what was wrong with this was that Lofton's run didn't mean anything and his daring could have resulted in the third out and killed any chance for the potential tying run. Also, clearing the bases allowed Atlanta pitcher Greg Maddux to pitch from a windup, not a stretch, a difference that can mean 5 m.p.h. off a fastball.

What was right with it was it was Kenny Lofton trying to shake his team out of its lethargy. That's another thing Kenny Lofton does best. When the Indians' eyes begin to droop, he kicks butt, as they say. He won't let that team die on third, to to speak.

In Game 3 Tuesday, the Indians' backsides were up against the proverbial wall. Lose Game 3 and you might as well throw in the hand.

Lofton always calls for cards. First of all, he dressed down the team in a pregame meeting. Then, he went out and put his bat where his mouth was.

All he did in Game 3 was 1) get on base every time at bat; 2) stroke two singles and a double; 3) walk three times; 4) steal his fifth base of the Series; 5) make a major catch at the 400-foot sign of a Fred McGriff shot that had two bases written all over it. Oh, and 6) he scored three runs.

It was highlight film stuff. One of the great nights in World Series history. Broadway stuff.

A Kenny Lofton was in uniform for Game 4. But not that Kenny Lofton.

He still put wood on the ball. He always does. He drove the ball deep to right on his first at-bat and made the last out of the game by driving the ball so deep to right that Atlanta outfielder David Justice had to turn his back to the field and high-tail it to the fence to catch it.

Cleveland missed his commanding presence. Conversely, Atlanta got a Kenny Lofton performance out of his counterpart on the Braves, center fielder Marquis Grissom, who got three hits and a walk and scored a run for Atlanta.

Brute strength is having a bad Series. Solo homers don't hurt you. Atlanta's technicians know they have to neutralize Kenny Lofton. You can pitch around an Albert Belle. You can't do that with Kenny Lofton. He can beat you with a bat, a foot or a glove. If Cleveland is to have any chance to get back in this World Series, he'll have to be the man in charge. If he isn't,the Braves will win this tribal warfare.

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