For the Yankees, the 2003-2004 offseason was an adjustment period. After an emotional victory over the Red Sox in the ALCS, they had fallen flat to the Marlins in a six-game World Series. Andy Pettitte would decamp for Houston; Roger Clemens would retire for the first time; David Wells was persona non grata. With prized Cuban hurler Jose Contreras in tow, the Yankees had to restock the club.
That winter would be George Steinbrenner’s last hurrah. Before taking a step back due to his health, the Boss went on a rampage. Marginalizing Brian Cashman to an extent, Steinbrenner brought in Gary Sheffield instead of Vladimir Guerrero and oversaw a trade for Javier Vazquez. Jeff Weaver, goat of the 2003 World Series, wound up in Los Angeles in exchange for the perennially disgruntled Kevin Brown. Steinbrenner, who banned Yankee officials from attending the Winter Meetings that year, had one more player in mind, and despite objections from Joe Torre, he brought him in.
That player was ticketed for center field. For Bernie Williams, 2003 was a turning point. Williams hurt his knee early in the year, and he would never be the same offensive force again. After the season, it was clear the Yanks needed some outfield help, and so the Boss brought in Kenny Lofton, against everyone’s wishes. Bernie was one of Joe Torre’s guys through and through, and the Yankee skipper wanted little to do with a 37-year-old interloper.
From the start, the Lofton relationship seemed strained. Despite assurances during a press conference that he would even park cars if the Yanks wanted him to, Lofton never really fit. He played in just 83 games for the Yanks, often sitting for stretches at a time because Torre often wouldn’t play him. He hit .275/.346/.395 but brought in for his speed, he was successful in just seven of ten stolen base attempts. He battled some injuries throughout the year and never seemed to fit.
When the postseason rolled around, Lofton had a bare role to play. He appeared in three of the Yanks’ seven games against the Red Sox, and despite some limited success at the plate, he made no appearances between games 2 and 7. When the Yankees could have used his speed, Torre kept him on the bench. The decision still haunts Yankee fans today as they assess the missed opportunities and blown chances from that historic ALCS.
When the season ended as it did, it was clear that things would change in the Bronx, and Lofton became one of the scapegoats. During the first week of December, the Yankees shipped him to the Phillies for Felix Rodriguez. Yet, Lofton had no love lost for the Yankees. He become enmeshed in controversy when he sounded off with Gary Sheffield against Joe Torre and reportedly urged CC Sabathia to turn down the Yankees. Bad feelings, it seems, run deep.
The bad feelings left over from Lofton’s tenure in New York weren’t entirely his fault. He arrived at a time of conflict between warring factions in the Front Office, and Joe Torre wasn’t about to let George Steinbrenner dictate his starting lineup. Still, the Yankees had a potential weapon in Lofton, and their field general didn’t want to recognize that. Today, the Yanks’ roster is far more balanced, and the players all have their roles. The team has certainly come a long way since the days of Kenny Lofton.