By acquiring centerfielder Kenny Lofton six week ago in the most significant trade in the history of Atlanta baseball, the Braves replaced not only Marquis Grissom but also Michael Johnson. Every time Lofton races homeward with another run in Atlanta, he follows a line parallel to the one traveled down the final straight by Johnson, the double Olympic champion sprinter, nine months ago in the same venue. The torch has been passed.
Lofton has been the star of the 1997 Atlanta games. Through Sunday he had batted .424, cracked more hits (42) than anybody else in baseball, tied the Atlanta record for runs scored in a game (five) and swiped 11 bases, creating more excitement with his legs than Tina Turner. In the process he had led the Braves to the best record in the majors—17-5, which equaled the franchise's best start of this century—and, perhaps most impressive, left his teammates in drop-jawed amazement. "He's the best in baseball at what lie does," says Atlanta righthander John Smoltz. "Whenever Kenny comes to the plate, we feel like we've got a rally going."
At Turner Field, the reconfigured Olympic Stadium—named for Ted, not Tina—the track may be gone, but the running is not. The 29-year-old Lofton, who bats leadoff for the Braves, is usually followed in the order and on the base paths by fleet outfielder Michael Tucker, who was acquired from the Kansas City Royals on March 27, two days after the blockbuster deal that brought Lofton and reliever Alan Embree to Atlanta from the Cleveland Indians in exchange for Grissom and fellow outfielder David Justice. The addition of Lofton and Tucker, plus the presence of the fast and powerful 20-year-old rookie outfielder Andruw Jones, have made the Braves more dangerous than ever. Still blessed with its trademark power and the best starting staff in baseball, Atlanta can now win games with its speed, too. The latest edition of the Team of the 1990s is one that Juan Antonio Samaranch could love.
"I think this team can be our best," says Smoltz, one of six players who have been on board for the Braves' entire seven-year run, which has yielded five division titles, four National League pennants and one world championship. "A lot of times it felt as if we'd wait for someone to hit a three-run homer. With the power we had the past couple of seasons I believe we could win our division every year. But when you get to the postseason, especially with the kind of pitching you see at that level, you have to ask guys to bunt and move people over, and we never had that ability. We'd get to the postseason, and other teams would beat us by creating runs. Now we can do that to go along with the power."
Atlanta exhibited its versatility as it beat the San Diego Padres three times last weekend, and Lofton figured in the rallies that led to comeback wins on Friday and Saturday. In the opener, after the Braves wiped out a 4-0 deficit with back-to-back home runs by catcher Javy Lopez and second baseman Mark Lemke, Lofton's two-out RBI single in the seventh inning gave Atlanta a 5-4 victory. On Saturday, with the Braves trailing 2-1, Lofton opened the bottom of the 10th inning with a smash that knocked over Padres second baseman Quilvio Veras. San Diego rightfielder Tony Gwynn, in his haste to hold Lofton to a single, then hobbled the ball, allowing Lofton to continue to second. After Gwynn's error, Padres closer Trevor Hoffman left a fastball up and over the plate for Jones, who crushed a last-at-bat, game-winning homer for the first time in his life, including his Little League days in Curacao. "Who knows how much Kenny had to do with that?" Smoltz said in the clubhouse afterward. "The pitcher's got to be worried about Kenny stealing and putting the tying run on third."
That victory left Atlanta 10-1 in the new home of the Braves. On Sunday, with a 2-0 rain-shortened defeat of the Padres, Atlanta ran its record to 11-1, the best ever by a club opening a ballpark. With 26 steals and 18 homers in 22 games at week's end, the Braves were on pace to break the Atlanta single-season record of 165 stolen bases, set in '91. Whereas last year's Braves scored only 60% of their runs without a home run, this year's model had scored 75% of its runs without going deep. "They're a better club than they were last year," Gwynn said last weekend, "and we're talking about a team that went to the World Series. Speed changes things entirely."
The Braves have looked so formidable that it seems odd that general manager John Schuerholz took so long to pull the trigger on the Lofton deal and then took heat from fans and the media when he did pull it. Schuerholz says he and his Indians counterpart, John Hart, began discussing the trade in November at the general managers' meetings. In spring training Schuerholz also lined up the swap with Kansas City for Tucker and infielder Keith Lockhart in exchange for outfielder Jermaine Dye and a minor leaguer. The 25-year-old Tucker could platoon with Jones in rightfield, Schuerholz figured, if he traded Justice.
"We spent a lot of time pondering the Lofton trade because it was so big," Schuerholz says. The franchise, which moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1966, had not traded two All-Stars in the same deal since 1963, when it sent Del Crandall and Bob Shaw to the San Francisco Giants in a seven-player deal that brought Felipe Alou to Milwaukee. "The more we thought about it, the more it made sense," Schuerholz says. "We got to the World Series [last year] with Justice only playing 40 games. And we freed up a chunk of money to re-sign [free-agents-to-be] Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux or sign someone else. With our success and this new park, I don't think we'll have much difficulty finding someone to take our money."
Like Glavine and Maddux, Lofton is eligible for free agency after this season. That was the main reason that Cleveland was willing to trade the best leadoff hitter in baseball, a player Cox has called "Rickey Henderson of 15 years ago." The deal capped a stunning turnaround in which the Indians purged their three cornerstone players, Lofton, Carlos Baerga and Albert Belle, within eight months.
"What bothers me," Lofton says, "is that [Hart] lied to my face. I flew into Cleveland in the winter and asked him if I was involved in trade talks, because I'd heard about something involving Roberto Alomar. He told me there was nothing going on, that I was not involved in any deal."