There was no deal yet, and the Indians

By Ken Berger Associated Press Published:

There was no deal yet, and the Indians would not confirm they were talking with the free-agent center fielder. But ESPN reported that Lofton, traded to Atlanta before the season, was close to signing a four-year contract with his former team.

The report by ESPN's Peter Gammons said that if Lofton signed with Cleveland, Marquis Grissom would likely be traded, perhaps in a multi-team deal.

If it gets done, the Lofton signing would be a stunning epilogue to one of the biggest baseball trades of the year.

Agents for Lofton and Grissom did not immediately return telephone calls. Indians spokesman Bart Swain acknowledged that Lofton was in Cleveland this week, but would not confirm that the club was having contract talks with him.

"He's one of about 15 guys we have an interest in this offseason," Swain said.

Grissom is due to make $5 million in 1998, the first year of a five-year, $25 million deal he signed with the Indians in May. Lofton made $4.75 in 1997, but is thought to be seeking between $8 million and $10 million a year.

A lack of interest by other teams and Lofton's history in Cleveland could drive the price down. On a visit to Cleveland Monday, Lofton had lunch with former teammate Jim Thome and talked with assistant general manager Dan O'Dowd on the phone. The Indians described the conversations as "non-baseball related."

Cleveland traded Lofton and pitcher Alan Embree to the Atlanta Braves for Grissom and David Justice on March 25 _ a rare exchange of all-star players between contending teams. Lofton, a four-time Gold Glover and five-time AL stolen base champion, was an emotional and offensive catalyst who led the Indians to their first AL pennant in 41 years in 1995.

Indians general manager John Hart had watched Albert Belle sign with Chicago after the 1996 season. He didn't want to lose Lofton and get nothing return.

But after Lofton's injury-plagued, sub-par season with the Braves, interest in him was reportedly limited to Cleveland and Milwaukee. Lofton batted .333 for Atlanta but stole only 27 bases due to groin and leg injuries.

Cleveland returned to the World Series for the second time in three years without Belle and Lofton.

Grissom was initially a disappointment in Cleveland, too. He batted .262 with 22 stolen bases, but improved to .292 in the postseason and .360 in the World Series. He played Gold Glove caliber defense all season _ many thought better than Lofton _ and played a major role in restoring order to the once volatile Cleveland clubhouse.

Discussion of Lofton's possible return immediately dominated talk radio discussion the night before tickets for the 1998 season go on sale. The Indians are trying to sell out the entire season before opening day for the second straight year.

In another move Friday, the Indians signed 30-year-old right-hander Richard Batchelor to a one-year contract. Batchelor is 5-1 with a 5.03 ERA in 43 major league appearances with St. Louis and San Diego.

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