TORONTO – If dynasties were measured by regular-season success, and not playoffs, then the Cleveland Indians of the mid-to-late 1990s would be viewed through a different prism.
Armed with an impressive core that featured Albert Belle, Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, David Justice and Omar Vizquel, the Indians finished first in the American League Central five straight years, largely bludgeoning opponents with a mighty offence.
That dominance never fully translated to the post-season, though, with Cleveland losing twice in the World Series, twice in the division series and once in the championship series from 1995-99.
Their last hurrah of sorts came in 2001, when the Indians were saddled with an aging roster and a competitive window that was about to slam shut. Following another ALDS loss that year, the club promoted Mark Shapiro to general manager and began the retooling process.
The 2017 Blue Jays could be in a similar position. Even if they don’t have the extended run that Cleveland enjoyed, the Blue Jays do have the oldest team in baseball and consecutive tough losses in the playoffs. Shapiro, now Toronto’s president, could soon face a decision about which direction the Blue Jays will go.
Centre-fielder Kenny Lofton was the prime offensive catalyst for most of those Cleveland teams. He was there in 2001 and knows what it’s like to be part of a group that’s battling Father Time.
We caught up with the four-time Gold Glover and feared speed demon during his visit to Toronto for the Joe Carter Classic to talk about the Blue Jays, his storied basketball career and more…
Kenny Lofton scores during a game against the Blue Jays in 2000. (Aaron Harris/CP)
Sportsnet: You were part of the veteran 2001 Indians team that was the last of an amazing era. Did players get a sense the team’s window was closing?
Lofton: When you start to see change and the front office doing different things, you begin to have an idea that they are trying to go in a different direction. As a player you just have to say, ‘Well this is what they are trying to do. The front office thinks that they have to go in a different direction.’ You just kind of roll with it.
The Blue Jays could be in a similar spot now. How would you advise older players on the team to approach potential uncertainty on the horizon?
Well, it’s a little tougher with the Blue Jays because they didn’t have that long run that we did. They are at this point, so they tried different pieces and didn’t sign certain players from year to year, because they wanted to see how it works out. I think it’s starting to show that sometimes you have to add to your pieces and not subtract your pieces. I think that’s what we tried to let Cleveland know in the early ’90s. In 1995 we got to the World Series, but that next year we didn’t want them to subtract players, we wanted them to add people and they did, and then they started on that direction.
[Blue Jays veterans] just have to go out there and play ball because it’s not up to you to make those decisions on what the team is going to do. That’s the front office’s call. You as a player just have to hope that they change their mind.
What stood out about the core of those Indians teams of the mid-to-late ’90s?
The confidence we had. We took that no prisoners attitude. We just knew we wanted to win and said, ‘We’re going to win every game.’ That’s the attitude we took.
I heard a story once that Albert Belle destroyed your boombox. Is that true?
[Laughs] Yeah. Albert did a few things — that was one of them. Albert’s just a competitor. If you could have somebody who had a competitive fire like he did, you want those kind of guys on your team.
What were you listening to on the boombox when he destroyed it?
To be honest, I can’t remember. Just a song that was nice and smooth. Maybe jazz. It wasn’t as fast as he liked it to be.
Did you know that your name is used as the title of a J. Cole and Young Jeezy track?
Oh yeah, I’ve heard it.
What did you think of it?
I mean it’s cool. I didn’t know it was happening, but when I saw it, it was pretty cool.
In the song they mention your speed. What are your thoughts on stolen bases not being appreciated nowadays like they were back when you played?
It’s bad for baseball. The game needs to have that speed element back in it. Because of the steroids era, it pushed that away and now supposedly the steroid era is gone. So speed should come back.
You played NCAA basketball with Steve Kerr on the Arizona Wildcats. Who were you rooting for in the NBA Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers or Golden State Warriors (coached by Kerr)?
Both of them won championships [in the previous two years]. I was happy on both wins. So, at this point it was a coin flip. With the team the Warriors had, I knew it was going to be very tough for Cleveland to win.
You were one of only two men to ever play in the World Series and Final Four. Could any baseball player during your playing days step to you on the court?
[Laughs] In my playing days? No.
If you had to build a three-on-three basketball team with MLB players, who would you choose?
John Smoltz, myself and … Wow, tough question … probably Ken Griffey Jr.