Lofton leading the pack in steals

Lofton running toward 600 steals

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Kenny Lofton has kept a few bases over the years, and they are displayed on the shelf in his office back home.

There was one to commemorate setting the American League rookie stolen-base record, one for each time he led the American League in stolen bases and one for No. 500.

"They don't give out trophies for stolen bases, so I made my own trophies," Lofton said. "You get a trophy for Silver Slugger, batting title, home runs, all that stuff. But not stolen bases."

He wants one more bag for his trophy case, but the question is what happens if his next steal is of home plate.

"I didn't think about that," Lofton said. "No, I don't think I'll be picking up that one. I don't think I'll be stealing home."

It's something to think about. Lofton has stolen home twice in his career, to go along with the 597 times that he has stolen either second or third base.

The simple arithmetic shows that Lofton goes into the 2007 season with 599 steals for his career and needs one more for 600 in his career. They probably won't stop the game to mark the occasion if it happens during the opening series in Anaheim, but it's still a remarkable achievement for a guy who has been running and swiping them ever since ...

Ever since?

"I can't remember the first one," Lofton said.

Let the record show that Lofton's first stolen base took place on Sept. 28, 1991, while playing for the Houston Astros against the Atlanta Braves. It was in the Astrodome, Kent Mercker was the opposing pitcher, Greg Olson was catching and Steve Finley was batting for the Astros.

Finley, who has 320 career stolen bases, said he doesn't remember it either.

"But what I do remember is that when he first came up, all he had to do was hit the ball on the ground, and if it was a little bit to the either the left or right of the infielder, he would beat it out," Finley said. "He could absolutely fly. At first, he was just stealing bases on raw speed. But then he started picking things up. And when he went to Cleveland, he really mastered it."

Now he is the master, the reigning active stolen-base leader in the Major Leagues. And he needs just one more to be the 17th player with 600 career steals.

"Honestly, it's just one of the hundreds," Lofton said. "I have 500. Now, 600 is coming. At this day and age, it's hard to get stolen bases. It's an honor to get 600, but until you get to the level of Rickey Henderson, it's meaningless."

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Henderson, with 1,406 stolen bases, is off the charts, just like Nolan Ryan is with his 5,714 strikeouts. But Lofton's base-stealing accomplishments carry weight and the respect of his peers.

"Six hundred is a massive number, which means he's been doing it for a long time and doing it well," said Astros second baseman Craig Biggio, who is third among active players with 410 stolen bases. "It's his job, but it means he's been consistent for 15 years, getting that many stolen bases, doing it every single year.

"He can flat out fly. When he was here before he got traded, he just had a different gear. You see guys that are fast, but Kenny's one of those guys that had a different gear. He's a quick learner, and he learned how to steal bases. You couldn't stop him. You still can't, either."

Lofton almost had number 600 at the end of last season with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was used as a pinch-runner in the final game of the season against the San Francisco Giants but was cut down by catcher Todd Greene.

But, at the age of 39, he still finished with 32 stolen bases, the 11th-highest in the National League and the third-highest ever by a 39-year-old player in one season.

"I can remember wearing Kenny Lofton spikes when I was in the Minor Leagues," said Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts. "Staying healthy and being able to produce for that long is impressive, especially when everybody knows what you're going to do when you get on base."

Added Orioles outfielder Corey Patterson, who stole 45 bases last season: "He's obviously one of the best basestealers that ever played the game."

Lofton has compiled his numbers at a time when it has become tougher to steal bases. Pitchers not only pay more attention to holding runners on base, but they also have developed a variety of counter measures. Most notable is the "glide" or "quick step" that pitchers use in shortening their delivery to the plate.

"I don't think people realize how tough it is to be a consistent basestealing threat," Rangers shortstop Michael Young said. "It's one thing to be able to hit the ball out of the ballpark or drive somebody in, but when a basestealer is on base, everybody in the ballpark knows he has a chance to go. That just goes to show you how great of a basestealer Kenny Lofton is."

There were 2,767 stolen bases in the Major Leagues last year, down 654 from the 3,421 that were swiped in 1999. Basestealers have to be smarter, and the 71.4 percent success rate last year among all Major League basestealers was the highest in the game over the last 50 years.

"Back in the 1980's, by the time a pitcher had picked up his leg and thrown to the plate, a guy had four steps," Lofton said. "Now you're lucky to get one. You've just got to pick the right pitcher and the right time."

Lofton has become a much smarter basestealer. He was successful 88 percent of the time (22-of-25) in 2005 and 86.7 percent of the time (32-for-37) in 2006, the two highest success rates in his career.

"He pays attention to a pitcher's characteristics, what he does well and what he doesn't do well," said Rangers first-base coach Gary Pettis, who has 354 career steals. "Some pitchers you can read more easily than others, and he knows about it going into a ballgame rather than just trying to figure it out once you get on base."

He has one more base to go.

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.