Portraits of Lofton, Bourn connect Indians stars
Outfielders' speed, athletic ability have spawned numerous comparisons
CLEVELAND -- On a wall outside of Progressive Field's new Premium Club rest adjacent black-and-white portraits -- one of longtime Indians center fielder Kenny Lofton and the other of offseason addition Michael Bourn.
It's no coincidence that these particular pieces of artwork are paired together. It's an assemblage designed by the organization to prompt passersby to connect the generations, elicit nostalgic thoughts about Lofton's reign and apply those same pleasant emotions toward the current brand.
It doesn't take such calculated means to convey the connection between the two speedsters, though.
On the left stands a focused Lofton in his baggy uniform, centered in a frame that presents the piece as an oversize baseball card. Inches to the right lies a snapshot of Bourn, hunched at the plate, holding his bat above his left shoulder and gazing intently at the pitcher.
The positioning of the portraits, however, suggests that Bourn is eyeing Lofton, perhaps peering into the past at the man who played nearly a decade for the Tribe, made six All-Star Games and served as the iconic leadoff hitter and table-setter in a potent lineup that crossed home plate at will.
Bourn isn't ignorant of the history. He's well-versed in his knowledge of the 1990s Indians. He knows where names such as Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez and Lofton reside in Wahoo lore.
"Their offense was unreal," Bourn said. "Everybody knew about them in the '90s."
Bourn is also cognizant of the shadow that lurks in the outfield grass and creeps up near the wall in center field, a structure Lofton routinely scaled to corral would-be home runs.
Now, that domain belongs to Bourn. But he didn't sign a four-year deal with the Indians in February to simply occupy the role of Lofton 2.0.
"What he was doing back in the day was unbelievable," Bourn said. "But I just try to be myself. I'm not trying to be anybody else. I don't know how to be anybody else. I'm made this way."
Bourn's makeup certainly bears resemblance to that of Lofton. Bourn is a menace on the basepaths, having led the National League in steals each year from 2009-11. Lofton paced the American League in that category each season from 1992-96, and his 452 swipes with Cleveland rank first in team history. Both players' defensive exploits are well-represented by hardware. Lofton claimed four AL Gold Glove Awards; Bourn has won two in the NL.
Bourn even mimicked one of Lofton's vintage moves with a headfirst slide into first base on April 14 that left him with an injured index finger. In the 1999 AL Division Series, Lofton suffered a torn rotator cuff when he chose that daring manner of approaching the bag.
"The similarities are there, definitely," said Indians bench coach Sandy Alomar Jr., who played with Lofton in Cleveland for eight years. "Kenny probably had a little more pop because he pulled the ball a little more. Michael stays within himself. He knows his role and he's pretty good at it."
If it were up to Bourn, he wouldn't even be playing baseball.
Bourn excelled at basketball, football and baseball in high school, but he became enamored with the crowds that surrounded the hardwood court. He considered quitting baseball to concentrate on basketball, but he knew his skills -- and his diminutive stature -- would eventually translate better on the diamond.
Lofton attended the University of Arizona on a basketball scholarship. He teamed with eventual NBA stars Steve Kerr and Sean Elliott in directing the Wildcats to the 1988 Final Four and '89 Sweet 16. During his junior year of college, Lofton tried out for the baseball team. Twenty-five years later, he received Hall of Fame votes for his performance between the Major League foul lines.
"I was always compared to him coming up," Bourn said. "I love the comparison. It's a great comparison. It's an honor to be compared to somebody like that. But at the same time, I'm just trying to be myself."
That attitude is what Lofton appreciates most about Bourn. As a guest instructor, Lofton walked away impressed from his conversations with the 30-year-old at Indians Spring Training in Goodyear, Ariz. Lofton's skill set -- a blend of speed and aggressiveness with a touch of flair -- stood out during an era of power hitting.
Lofton embraced being different and he empathizes with Bourn's desire to boast his own individuality. It's a concept Lofton first learned from Phillies manager and former Indians skipper Charlie Manuel, who encouraged his players to "know thyself."
"I look at everybody as different," Lofton said. "He knows he's not a home run hitter, so he's not going to go out there and try to hit the ball out of the ballpark. He knows hitting the ball to left field is going to be his bread and butter. If they put it out there, he can get on base. He knows that.
"He understands that's his job. That's one thing I liked is that I had that same attitude. That's me. I know what I do. I'm going to go out there and do it the best way I can."
Lofton prefers not to compare specific athletes to himself. He recognizes the on-field conquests of speedsters such as Juan Pierre and Carl Crawford -- Bourn's Little League teammate and close friend.
There is just one admission that Lofton isn't willing to make.
"Everybody is trying to compare him or whatever," Lofton said. "We have speed, power when need be. But I was a guy -- I played basketball. I could jump out of the gym and jump over the walls. I'm not sure if he can jump as high as I can over those walls."
Alas, the 45-year-old Lofton conceded a bit.
"He might be able to get me now," Lofton said, laughing.
Bourn isn't so sure.
"I don't know if I can get up there," Bourn said.
No need. He's already even with Lofton on at least one wall inside Progressive Field.