Chicago Cubs fans understand a player does not need to stick around very long to make a massive impact on the organization and the fanbase at large.
As we’re all well aware, Nicholas Castellanos inspired such rabid fanaticism during his brief stint with the Chicago Cubs last summer. Fans were clamoring for the team to re-sign Castellanos, who always seemed to say and do the right things both on and off the field.
There have been other players who had short but significant runs with the Cubs: from Aroldis Chapman‘s 2016 campaign to Rich Harden‘s oft-forgotten 2008 in which he went 5-1 with a 1.77 ERA and 258 ERA+ in 12 starts on the North Side.
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But for me, there was one player who helped cement my Cubs fandom: Kenny Lofton.
At this point, some of you might be thinking: wait, what? Lofton was a tremendous player (a six-time All-Star in fact) in the 1990s, but his career seemed to be running its course at the turn of the millennium.
Lofton had a .721 OPS and stole just 16 bases for the Cleveland Indians in 2001, and he was about to begin cycling through teams as a popular trade piece.
But in 2003, Lofton came to Chicago as part of a trade that also landed the Cubs Aramis Ramirez, while the Pittsburgh Pirates received shortstop Jose Hernandez as well as Matt Bruback and Bobby Hill. It still might be one of the greatest trades in franchise history.
Ramirez would go on to make multiple All-Star teams and post a 126 OPS+ in nine seasons with the Cubs. Lofton would play less than a half-season, but he deserves tons of recognition for his role with the ’03 Cubs.
Corey Patterson looked like he was on his way as the future center fielder of the franchise. He hit .298 with an .839 OPS and 13 homers in 83 games. But Patterson would go down with a knee injury on July 6, and he would miss the rest of the year.
At that time, the Cubs were just 44-43, and by July 22 – when they acquired Lofton – they were 4 1/2 games back in the NL Central. Of course, we all know what happened. The Cubs went 44-31 over their last 75 games, winning the division and (eventually) coming within just five outs of reaching the World Series for the first time since 1945.
Lofton was an instrumental part of the success. He slashed .327./381/.471 with 13 doubles, four triples, three homers and a 121 wRC+ in just 56 games, per FanGraphs. Lofton was equally solid in the postseason, hitting .308 with four stole bases while playing in all 12 games.
But the reason I gravitated toward Lofton went beyond his production. Even though he was 36 when he came to the Cubs, Lofton played the game with a vivacity and a joy that gave him a certain gravitas.
While Sammy Sosa pounded his chest and hit towering homers, Lofton slapped the ball around the diamond and ran like hell, all while possessing this “wide-eyed kid” feel to his game. He was a plus-plus defender in center field, and ultimately defined the excitement that club had during their march to the NLCS.
Lofton would never play for the Cubs again, but he forever endeared himself to this particular baseball newbie, one still in the early phases of his Cubbies fandom.