Before Kevin Lofthus embarks upon his pro baseball career with the Oakland Athletics organization this weekend, there’s something he wants to tell the baseball scouts of America:
They made a big mistake. He’s no last-minute draft choice.
And another thing:
“I’ve played against a lot of those first-rounders,” says Lofthus, who played at Mt. Carmel High School before going on to Nevada Las Vegas. “It’s a joke. They can’t play.”
Then, in a belated attempt to soft sell his anger, he adds, “That’s just my opinion.”
Apparently, it was the opinion of big league scouts that Lofthus, a first-team All-American pick by The Sporting News this year, had too many limitations and too many question marks to warrant anything more than a late-round flier in baseball’s summer free-agent draft.
Fred Dallimore, UNLV’s baseball coach, is a big Lofthus fan but understood the scouts’ thinking.
“Number 1, he’s a one-dimensional player,” Dallimore said of Lofthus, who was a designated hitter his senior year. “He does one thing they look for: He hits with a frequency of power and he’s able to hit the ball for a high average.”
Lofthus’ 34-game hitting streak, 26 home runs, 63 RBIs and a .367 batting average last season proved that.
But the fifth-year senior never did show the scouts he could play a position, and that is apparently what scared them away. Because of a rare injury--a cystic tumor on his left wrist--Lofthus could swing a bat but could not withstand the impact of the ball hitting his first baseman’s glove.
The tumor, which is non-cancerous, originally was discovered after Lofthus’ junior year, when he batted .367 with 18 homers and 56 RBIs while playing first base.
“At first it was a sac filled with fluid, and then it hardened up like a rock,” Lofthus said in a telephone interview from Scottsdale, Ariz., where he’s preparing for the start of Rookie League season.
He sat out a year to have the tumor removed, only to have it grow back before this season. Lofthus withstood the pain and managed to have a pretty fair senior year.
“It hurts to swing in the follow-through, especially when you miss,” he said. “When you hit it good, it’s fine.”
Catching the ball is another story, entirely.
Lofthus tried the first day of rookie camp in Scottsdale, but couldn’t.
“The pain was just too much every time the ball hit the glove,” he said.
Though Lofthus is scheduled to have the cyst removed again after the summer season, his temporary good-hit, no-field status put him in a situation where only 14 of the 26 major league teams could realistically even consider him.
Dick Pole, who covers the Nevada area for the Major League Scouting Bureau, confirmed that Lofthus’ health was the primary reason he wasn’t taken earlier.
“I saw him play seven ballgames and he never even had a glove in his back pocket,” Pole said. “That’s a big chance to take when you’re talking about spending an early round draft choice. What if (the cyst) doesn’t come out?”
Yet Lofthus thought his statistics alone might propel him into a higher round.
“I don’t know why they don’t look at them (his stats),” he said. “There were a lot of players drafted early whose stats weren’t that good. I guess you get a big name and it doesn’t matter what your stats are. We’ll see down the road how well they do.”
Lofthus said he figured the positive feedback he received from a number of scouts during the year was reliable.
“A bunch of scouts told me I’d be picked in the early rounds,” he said. “It just pumps you up. Then it’s just a big letdown.”
But a letdown he half expected.
“I didn’t think about the draft much until the (senior) season I had,” he said. “But I figured that would change some things. I always had a problem with scouts, even in high school. But my dad told me to be friendly to them, that they’d help me get drafted higher.”
Though he was never told by the A’s which round he was drafted in, Lofthus assumed he was one of the final players picked.
“I wasn’t contacted until the last day,” he said.
And $1,000 signing bonuses are not exactly the contracts of blue-chip prospects.
“I have no use in my life for scouts,” Lofthus said. “For the rest of my life, I’ll always have a bitterness for scouts. It’s someone’s life they’re playing with. You just can’t do that. If you get a kid that’s not very strong mentally, he could crack.”
Or he could leave his bitterness behind and get on with his life. Which is what Lofthus has tried to do.
Within 10 minutes of signing with the A’s for the nominal sum of $1,000, he was on a plane to Scottsdale, where the A’s rookie club plays.
Then, on the first day of practice, Lofthus suddenly realized it didn’t much matter to the rookie league coaches on what round he was drafted. All they cared about was that he could hit the ball out of the park.
“They told me, ‘You’re the guy we’re expecting to hit the home runs,’ ” said Lofthus, a 6-foot-4, 215-pound right-handed hitter. “I just thought, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of pressure.’ ”
But Dallimore believes Lofthus is up to the challenge.
“His bat’s going to have to carry him,” Dallimore said. “But I think he’ll be able to hit the long ball. He has good knowledge of pitchers and he has no fear at the plate.”
Injury notwithstanding, Pole also said he thinks Lofthus has the potential to hit at the major league level.
“As far as baseball ability, he’s got plus (above average) power,” Pole said. “He’s going to hit home runs wherever he plays. He’s going to have to adapt to the ball in on him, but that’s true with most players coming out of college. If you produce, they’ll find a place for you.”
Sometimes, a college player’s home-run statistics can be inflated. With Lofthus, Dallimore said, that is not the case.
“He doesn’t hit cheap home runs,” he said. “He has hit some balls so far this year, they serve meals on them.”
If that’s true, then Lofthus’ home run against Fresno State this year must have been a catered affair. It is said to have gone into the far reaches of the back parking lot, about 500 feet. In his final collegiate game at the Central Regional in College Station, Tex., Lofthus put on one final aerial display.
In a 13-8 loss to LSU, the regional champion, he hit two homers off the scoreboard and a third over it.
Lofthus, though, understands that college pitching is not professional pitching, aluminum bats are not wooden bats and adjustments will have to made in his swing.
“I usually get my hands out (in front), but every once in a while I’m lazy with my back side,” he said. “I don’t turn my hips and explode into the ball. You can get away with that sometimes in college, but not here.”
At 23, Lofthus realizes he will have to produce earlier than most college draftees.
“I think this year might be kind of a one-shot deal,” he said. “If I don’t hit, they probably won’t keep me around too long.”
And if he does hit?
“In my mind, I think they got a pretty good deal getting me for a thousand bucks.”