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Kenny Lofton

East Chicago native and former Major League Baseball standout Kenny Lofton threw out the ceremonial first pitch Saturday before the International Baseball Challenge semifinal between Slovakia and the Northwest Indiana Oilmen, who are representing North America in the tournament.

ST. JOHN — Despite having the reputation of being an aloof and moody player, retired Major League Baseball standout Kenny Lofton is actually a fun guy.

The East Chicago native flew in early Saturday to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at the rain-delayed International Baseball Challenge semifinal between Slovakia and our local Oilmen, who are representing North America.

Lofton, 51, lives in Los Angeles and does this sort of thing when his hectic schedule allows it.

His company, FilmPool, "specializes in family-friendly, multicultural content for worldwide distribution," according to its website. Lofton also has a young daughter.

He still draws applause at ballparks around the country, at black-tie events, sports memorabilia shows and public appearances that champion worthy causes.

This week-long tournament had been played at Whiting's Oil City Stadium, but Saturday's steady rain moved the first semifinal game to Lake Central's state-of-the-art artificial turf facility.

"You tell people you have a lot of stuff going on so you have to pick and choose what you can do," said Lofton, who attended East Chicago Washington. "It's Northwest Indiana, which got me in the position I'm in today because we played against Whiting, Munster, Bishop Noll, Hammond High, Merrillville. So I consider this my area.

"I'm from 'The Region.'"

Lofton is an entertaining interview, though as a player he was portrayed as distant and difficult.

But man, could he play baseball.

During his highly-productive, 17-year MLB career with 11 different teams, Lofton collected more trophies, awards and plaques than a Dick's Sporting Goods store.

There is a troubling side to his story, however.

For whatever reason, Lofton is not in the National Baseball Hall of Fame despite appearing in the postseason in 11 seasons, being a six-time All-Star and having a .299 career batting average.

Lofton's 622 stolen bases — he led the MLB three times and the American League five consecutive times — rank second to only Rickey Henderson among all players over the past 30 years.

Much like Henderson, Lofton was a menace on the base paths and could take over a game.

He did it all: Field, hit, steal bases.

His HOF snub will never make sense.

"With me getting (ticked) off, nothing's going to change. If it's going to help the situation, then go ahead and get (ticked) off," Lofton said. "But for me, there is another opportunity with the veterans' committee in 2022 or 2023 to vote me in.

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"With Tim Raines getting in (2017), that heightens the opportunity for me."

Both stars were lightning-quick and exceptional on offense, with Lofton having the edge defensively because he played a more demanding outfield position. In 2,041 games in the outfield, he had only 79 errors.

Out of the 569 ballots cast for the Hall in 2013, only 18 (3.2 percent) carried Lofton’s name, causing him to drop off of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s ballot forever.

I'd hate to think it's a media vendetta.

Players named on at least 75 percent of ballots are elected to the Hall; those named on fewer than 5 percent fall off the ballot, a criteria enacted in 1979.

According to JAWS, a system that measures Hall of Fame worthiness using wins above replacement, Lofton is the eighth-best, Hall-eligible center fielder in modern baseball history, checking in slightly behind HOF member Duke Snider and slightly ahead of Hall of Famers Andre Dawson and Richie Ashburn.

"Did I make a big impact on the game? I feel I did," Lofton said. "I had a combination of offense and defense. That should've been a Hall of Famer. If you talked to other players I played against, they said their strategy was to keep me off base.

"They said: 'Our meetings were about how do we stop Kenny Lofton?' and that made me feel good."

Saturday, the former Arizona basketball standout — he was a teammate of Steve Kerr's — sat with fans the entire game and loved every minute of it.

Aloof and moody? Where did that come from?

"Eddie Murray wasn't a media favorite but he got in the Hall of Fame. It's about the numbers," Lofton said. "When I was asked a question, I gave just the answer. You have an open-ending question and if you ask me a closed-ending question, I'm going to give you a closed-ending answer: The sky is blue.

"I've seen guys elaborate and suddenly they're talking and talking ... this guy said this, that guy said this. Where did that come from? That's not me."

Lofton had one simple request when time permitted.

"Broaden your question and I can broaden my answer, but they wanted me to ramble and when people ramble, they get into trouble," he told me.

"I didn't ramble and they didn't like it."

We'll see what the veterans' committee decides when Lofton's name comes up again for HOF consideration.

Remember, guys, it's his MLB career numbers, not interview requests.

This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at al.hamnik@nwi.com.

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