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Former Nashua Pride standout recalls championship season

Sometimes, winning one championship in a season isn’t enough. Sometimes, you need two.

That was James Lofton’s thinking back in the late summer of 2000, when, after winning a title with the Tri-City Posse of the independent Western League, he sought to do the same thing with the independent professional minor league Nashua Pride, the baseball franchise that called Holman Stadium home from 1998-2008.

Lofton said the two clubs had talked; he knew a few of the players on the Pride at the time.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of an occasional series on the Nashua Pride Atlantic League of Professional Baseball championship season in 2000.

“My name came up, they got in contact with Tri-City, and the rest is history,” Lofton said recently while riding a bus back to Boston after coaching a national developmental team in a tournament at Manchester’s Northeast Delta Dental Stadium.

But back in 2000, Lofton didn’t come to Nashua alone. His Tri-City teammate Ned Darley, who was on the mound to close out the 14-inning championship clinching game vs. Somerset on an early October night in Bridgewater, N.J., came with him – bringing an overwhelming fastball.

When Lofton got to Nashua, he noticed a certain vibe. And as a former member of the Reds organization, he knew some of Nashua’s players on a first name basis already.

“The guys had fun,” Lofton said, “But knowing those guys growing up, I was on the younger end. They always had fun on the field, and that kind of opened my eyes. It just worked out.”

Lofton, who could play middle infield or outfield, sensed that championship-driven feeling all over again.

“That’s the first thing I was told,” he said of the fact the Pride would do whatever it took to win a title that year. “Once they brought me over, it was the same process. We (he and Darley) were already prepared for the next step.”

Lofton’s role – hit at the top of the lineup and score some runs. “I just fit in like a puzzle, man,” Lofton said.

The Pride had already clinched the first half title/playoff spot in the Atlantic League’s split season. That led to a more relaxed second half and the team was starting to develop some bad – and losing – habits.

Lofton wasn’t too vocal in the locker room. “I did my business on the field,” he said. “That’s when I was told by Glenn (Pride outfielder Murray) and the guys who were there, just be me and do my thing on the field. That was one of the things that worked out best there.”

Once the playoffs began, after the Pride lost a controversial first game vs. Bridgeport, Lofton said the drive to win got even hotter.

“After the first game, there were a few bad calls, and I remember Glenn tearing up the hallway (at Brideport’s Harbor Yard),” Lofton said. “It was one of those things, where after the first game, we had a meeting on the bus. We just kind of came together, took it pitch by pitch and game by game the rest of the playoffs, and it worked out.”

Lofton loved Nashua, the intensity of the games at Holman Stadium in front of crowds anywhere from 800-1200 that were so loud it made it seem like 10,000.

“And it was all people we knew,” Lofton said. “It felt like we were playing with an extra guy on the field, you know?”

Partly because of that, Nashua never lost the rest of the way. They played four straight at Holman, winning Games 2 and 3 to eliminate Bridgeport in the best-of-three semis and then the first two games at home in the best-of-five finals vs. the Somerset Patriots.

“We had to take care of Bridgeport first,” Lofton said. “We turned it up a notch a bit more (vs. Somerset).We were right there, we felt we didn’t come all this way to lose.”

In those two games, Nashua had to play on a Saturday night and then play Game 2 vs. the Patriots on a Sunday afternoon. “We didn’t have time to brag about it,” Lofton said.

After winning both, Nashua, as this series recounted, won it all in New Jersey in a 14-inning marathon that ended with a Jose Reyes homer and Darley retiring the side in the bottom of the 14th.

“Going 14 innings, we were just looking for something to happen,” Lofton said of Reyes. “He was an all or nothing guy, and he came through for us. And that was it.”

And Lofton was out on the field celebrating a championship for the second time in six weeks.

“That was something, myself and Ned, we sat back and talked about,” he said. “After what we went through in Tri-City, and coming to this level and doing it here, it was something. Even to this day we still communicate about it.”

Darley, in fact, closed out the title win in Tri-City. Lofton said he ended up facing Darley later in his career.

“You know what’s amazing is I faced Ned my last year playing (in 2006),” Lofton said. “We were close. And him knowing the type of player I was, the first pitch was at my head. If you let him get comfortable, it’s over.”

The celebration continued in the ballpark in Bridgewater until the wee hours of the morning. “We all sat there, celebrated, and hung out like we always did,” Lofton said. “It’s something we still talk about to this day. When you win like that, that bond you build, man, is always there.”

Lofton said going from one playoff to another was fun. The Atlantic League,with several former Major Leaguers looking for the road back, along with Triple-A caliber players, was considered a step above the Western League.

“It was almost like going from Double A playoffs to Triple A playoffs,” he said. “The reason I say that is you had to step up your game a little bit going against guys who had been in the Major Leagues or played at the next level.

“It was one of those things if I did well, I still had a chance to do somehing else down the line. I felt I had to get it done, and God willing, I got it done.”

Lofton loved playing for Pride manager Butch Hobson, whose style was totally the opposite of his fiery manager at Tri-City, Wally Backman.

“I went from Wally Backman to Butch Hobson,” Lofton said. “That should tell you everything. They both gave me a lot of information to get me to a level when I could even exist in the Atlantic League.”

Lofton took that information a bit further, developing a coaching career.

Lofton right now is coaching with the New Balance Future Stars, a developmental program for some of the best young players in the country.

“We get the best players on the field at the same time, and we develop them in a hurry,” Lofton said.

He’s no stranger to the region, as most of the big national events have been at Fenway Park or Pawtucket. Last weekend was his second visit to New England since his Pride days.

Lofton retired in 2006, and a few years later had a conversation with Mariners player development director Chris Gwynn in Seattle, and worked in the Mariners organization as a coach for six years.

“I did quite a bit for the organization for six years,” he said. “I like everything about it. Teaching the guys the game, long story short. Teaching them how to play the right way. I know it’s different now than when we played, but just getting those guys

“It’s a little different now from when we played, but getting the guys to know and understand themselves on the field is a plus.”

What’s the biggest difference that Lofton sees?

“You know, the type of game I played coming up,it’s almost a dinosaur these days,” Lofton said. “There’s no bunting anymore, there’s no stealing anymore, nothing for the little guy to do on the field any more. Everything is based on hitting home runs.”

And in the tournament in Manchester, Lofton saw some small ball. “It’s a pleasure to see,” he said, adding he tells players “to stay within themselves. You can’t be 5-6, 155 with a launch angle. You have to learn how to play your game, and let the big boys do what they do.”

And that’s what Lofton did as a player.

“I had to,” he said. “If not I would have been back in south central Los Angeles hanging out. I learned how to play that type of game so I could be in scoring position for guys like Glenn (former Pride and Red Sox teammate Murray).”

Lofton has crossed paths with some of his former Pride teammates. He even coached against Hobson when Hobson was managing in the lower levels of the Arizona Diamondbacks organization for a year.

“Butch is Butch, man,” Lofton said. “Nothing changed. … I was always talking to him about guys I had, guys who could possibly help him out. So we kept in touch. He even worked a few of my guys out. … I could call him today and have a conversation about anything.”

Lofton said experiencing a title two months in a row was special, but the one in Nashua “was the biggest one because of how the second half went, how we connected and we could bond together to pull it off. It was a great thing, man.”

After 2000, Lofton spent 2001 in the Red Sox organization and actually made it to the Majors for the latter half of September that year.

Lofton actually returned to Nashua in 2003, and got one of the biggest hits of his career, a walkoff home run in another Atlantic League semifinals series vs. Bridgeport at Holman Stadium. He actually asked to return to Nashua

“Just the people, the fans,” he said. “You get to know everybody. I always said if something happened where I had to go back (to independent ball), I’d go back to Nashua. I wouldn’t go anywhere else. I told Butch and those guys after I signed with Boston.”

That 2003 night vs. Bridgeport, Lofton said he told his teammates “The fans are either going to love me or hate me. For one time, I’m going to be all or nothing right here.”

He was all – but Nashua went on to lose to those same Patriots in five games in ’03.

Lofton doesn’t talk much about his career to the players he coaches. “What I’ve experienced they probably wouldn’t believe or understand,” he said. “But when playoffs come around, and we’re talking about different things we’ve done, I always bring out pictures of my rings, for them to see that. A lot of them, they go back and check things online anyway.”

And they read about a player who won two championships in two months.

“It’s obviously something that doesn’t happen often,” Lofton said. “It was obviously a plus for me – something I’ll never forget.”

Nashua Pride fans won’t forget about it, either.

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