DAVID ECKSTEIN HEARS YOU SAYING HE'S STILL NOT GOOD ENOUGH. KNOW WHAT? HE AGREES
If conversions were a stat, the active leader would be an avenging Angel-a guy who has changed more minds, convinced more skeptics and answered more critics than any man in baseball.
On the eve of a new season, fresh off the World Series that transformed him from no-name to household name, this stud shortstop demonstrated how success has changed his life. He took us on a tour of his off-season crib near Orlando, showing off the toys he purchased with his $272,000 Series share and giving us a rare glimpse of the room where it all happens, decorated with memorabilia and equipped with a unique home theater.
But to keep it real-and factual-you should know that the player is 5'6 1/2", and this was actually a tour of his parents' home, in a nice little city called Sanford that's anything but a gated community. And that the boom-boom Room is actually the same neat, faux-wood-paneled bedroom he slept in as a kid. On the dresser sit a few trophies from youth baseball and a 13-inch black-and-white TV that, on clear nights, picks up all the local channels. The toys? Well, make that toy. It isn't actually something David Eckstein bought for himself. It's a massage chair he bought for his dad, Whitey, who's just started dialysis in preparation for a kidney transplant.
David did make one other big-ticket purchase: a Mac G4 desktop computer for his older brother Ricky, an assistant baseball coach at the University of Georgia. He plans to splurge again-on a new roof for his folks' house, since the old one, says Whitey, is "not all there." After that he'll stash the money away, he says, "until I've got a wife and kids to spend money on. Right now, I don't even have a girlfriend."
He didn't buy a new car, despite urging from his Angels teammates. That '99 Nissan Maxima he got from his sister, after his ancient compact fell apart on the drive home after the Red Sox released him? Rides just fine, thank you.
Nor did he buy new gadgets or furniture for his swanky bachelor pad in Newport Beach. No need. He's already got a TV and a bed. Keeping his clothes in neat stacks on the floor works as well as keeping them in a dresser, really. And the patio furniture that came with the apartment is just perfect for the living room. (It's not like he does any entertaining.) David did sleep around a bit this winter. In addition to Newport Beach and Sanford, he kept a bed in Athens, Ga., in the basement of Ricky's home. The house was a hostel for four minor leaguers, who joined David for dawn workouts in the Bulldogs' batting cages and weight room.
Yes, it's a glamorous lifestyle, and it really never changes. He always wakes up without the help of an alarm clock. (Needing an alarm clock would mean he's not well-rested.) In-season, when the Angels are home, he makes himself pancakes for breakfast, does a little stretching, watches some TV, then makes chicken teriyaki with elbow macaroni and heads to the yard. On Sundays, no matter where he is, he'll find a Catholic church where he can attend mass. "For me," he says, "it's important to try to feel the same every single day."
Having to prove yourself over and over can do that to you-make you a little single-minded. "Maybe it's because I'm not the biggest guy, or the strongest guy, or the best thrower," says Eckstein, 28. "Maybe I've had to focus a little harder. I know guys on my team think it's funny that I'm all about baseball all the time. All I can say is that's been my attitude for a while. This ride's been full bore for a lot of years. I can't change now."
No one recruits you to play college baseball? Fine, you just go to the University of Florida and spend so much time in the batting cage as a freshman-in the fall, before the varsity has even begun official practice-that the coach notices you and says, when practice begins, "We need another body, so hang around."
When practice begins, and the rest of the team is decked out in official, school-issued Gators gear, and you're wearing your high school stuff and a UF cap you bought at the mall, you don't care. you keep showing up, every day, because they don't tell you anything different. And how do you find out that maybe, just maybe, you're going to be asked back to play in the spring? When, after about three weeks of practice, the coach hands you a new cap.
"They gave him a hat," Whitey says, leaning forward in his La-Z-Boy. (The fancy new massage chair is still in the box.) "And then, in the spring, they let him dress for the home games."
There's a smirk on Whitey's face. A recently retired high school history teacher and golf coach who's still a city commissioner in Sanford, Whitey gets a kick out of telling people how David barely played as a freshman, but eventually became an All-SEC second baseman, then an All-America.
Despite his success, David, the youngest of five kids born to Patricia Eckstein in the span of 5 1/2 years, wasn't exactly counting on a baseball career. "If I wasn't drafted," he says, "I was going to law school, like my brother Kenny and my sister Christine did. I wasn't going to an independent league. No one like me gets noticed in those leagues. You need a team to throw you a bone."
The Red Sox did just that. They took him in the 19th round of the 1997 draft and offered him all of a thousand bucks. He had his foot in the door. Understand, the "19th round, $1,000" tag will stick to you like glue in the minor leagues, especially when you don't show a single plus on your tools chart. Even if you hit over .300 at two levels of A-ball, and again in Double-A, you're still a long shot, a dreamer, an "organizational player" in the eyes of just about everyone.
So when Eckstein rose to Triple-A Pawtucket in 2000, the hitting coach there felt compelled, after watching this little infielder take batting practice, to say, "you cannot possibly hit that way." (David didn't want to name names because "it's not my style," but the coach, who's now a manager in the Rangers system, was a guy named Arnie Beyeler.)
Back in the family living room, Eckstein runs off to get a bat and then, making sure not to hit his mom sitting behind him on the couch, demonstrates. "Here's my stance since I'm a little kid," he says, cocking the bat behind his head. "The coach told me I had to get my hands lowered."
David sits back down and, looking across at Whitey, says, "My dad raised me to say 'Yes, sir' to anyone older than me. So that's what I did: 'Yes, sir.' And I had the worst slump of my career."
Ultimately, David had to defy Beyeler and go back to his old style of hitting, but the hole he'd dug was a deep one. Though he managed to climb from the mid-.100s to .246 by August, the Red Sox lopped him off their 40-man roster and placed him on waivers. Looking back, it was probably the greatest thing that ever happened to him.
An astute Anaheim scout named Dale Sutherland advised the home office to put in a claim. In the midst of their 14th consecutive non-playoff season, the Angels sent Eckstein to finish the summer at Triple-A Edmonton and told him, "Do what we saw you doing last year in Double-A." Along the way, he realized it was time to put his trust in the one person who knew his swing better than anyone: Ricky Eckstein.
THE ECKSTEINS are a '50s sitcom kind of family. Whitey named his last two boys Ricky and David, after the Nelson brothers on the Ozzie and Harriet show. "My dad's parents divorced when he was really young," says David. "He wanted a big family. But most of all, he wanted a close family."
The tightness of the unit was only strengthened when, 14 years ago, the Ecksteins learned in rapid succession that the first three kids, Kenny (now 33), Christine (32) and Susan (31), were all suffering from kidney disease and would need transplants. Mom donated one of hers to Susan, while Christine and Kenny received theirs from organ donors. Then Whitey (who learned only recently that he'd need a transplant) suffered a stroke in 1990. All the medical bills, which came around at the same time that Kenny and Christine were beginning college at the University of Florida, made it tough for Whitey and Patricia, both teachers, to do more than make ends meet.
"Maybe that explains part of why I don't really think it's necessary to spend money on myself," says David. "My parents showed me that love is more important than money and material things. I never had a lot of money to spend. Even in college, I hardly dated because I got $20 a week and I liked my Little Caesars. But I never felt poor."
For one season at Florida, David and Ricky were teammates. David is quick to tell you that, with a break here or there, Ricky could have been the big leaguer. He also thinks his big brother's still got a chance to make it to the majors-as a hitting coach. "He's big-time," brags David, "and with that new Mac G4, now he's high-tech, too."
Ricky doesn't need memory chips-or even video-to analyze David's game. "I listen to the Angel games on the Internet," Ricky says. "And just going on what the announcer is saying, about how the pitcher is working David, and how he ultimately hits the ball, I can visualize what he's doing right and wrong. If I know he's not making proper adjustments, I give him a call."
David also credits Ricky for the revelation that got him to the big leagues in 2001. The year before, Ricky had worked as a bullpen catcher for the Twins. Studying guys like Omar Vizquel and Mike Bordick during games and drills, Ricky concluded that his kid brother's best route to the majors would be as a shortstop, even though he hadn't played the position (except for some fill-in work in A-ball and one game in Triple-A) since Little League.
"You play the infield with your feet," Ricky explains. "And David's got good footwork. He's quick laterally, he's balanced, he gets himself in a good position to field and throw." When the brothers began their off-season workouts in the fall of 2000, Ricky told David to take his grounders and throws from the left side of second base.
When David got to spring training to begin the 2001 season, he made Angels infield coach Alfredo Griffin a believer, though manager Mike Scioscia and the rest of the staff had doubts. "His brother was right about the good feet," says Griffin, a former All-Star shortstop. "And I didn't think his arm would be a problem. His throws carry well."
Indeed, it isn't the end result of one of Eckstein's throws that raises eyebrows, it's the manner in which he gets the job done. Taking multiple shufflesteps ... grabbing the ball with three fingers across the seams, softball style ... reaching back to his hamstrings and heaving the ball across the infield. Is that a major league shortstop, or is that Tanner Boyle from the Bad News Bears movies? "I admit," says Angels pitcher Jarrod Washburn, "the first time I saw him throw, I went [gasp!]-I thought it was going 15 rows deep. But after I saw that he was throwing everyone out, including guys like Ichiro, I calmed down. It may not be pretty, but it works."
In many ways, it's the arm that symbolizes everything you need to know about Eckstein. He's an American original. "I'm the same player I was when I was a kid," he says. "Even in Little League, I was the guy trying to get on base for the big hitters. The guy who knew he had to play good defense and not make many mistakes. I've never had to change my game."
But the arm? When he first saw himself on videotape, he cringed. "It's so ugly, I hate the way I throw," Eckstein says. "When I hear people criticize my arm, man, I'm on board with them. I'm on that bandwagon, totally. I know I'm far from a perfect player. So much needs to get better."
This winter, he's heard the skeptics dig up old-school names like Brian Doyle and Buddy Biancalana. He learned these were little guys who had big postseason coming-out parties only to vanish from the majors soon thereafter. But Doyle and Biancalana never came close to what Eckstein did a year ago, hitting .293 with a .363 OBP, scoring 107 runs, stealing 21 bases, hitting 8 HRs (including three grand slams) and driving in 63 from the top of the order-better numbers, except for HRs, than a leadoff hitter named Craig Biggio.
"Of course, I hear the whispers," says Eckstein, "because I'm whispering to myself. I have confidence, but I also have a lot to prove. Still."
You'll never be able to look up how many minds he's changed. But Eckstein knows there are always going to be nonbelievers out there, all waiting to be converted.
HOW BASEBALL'S GOLIATH BECAME DAVID'S BIGGEST FAN
When Barry Bonds went on the major league All-Star tour of Japan last November, he developed a new friendship-with one of the Angels who stole the World Series from the Giants, David Eckstein. "He's one of my favorite players ever," says Bonds. "I told him that he's a gift from God. Everything is difficult for him, yet he gets it done and done well."
The admiration is mutual. "He sat around with me and a lot of the guys for hours almost every day, talking baseball and teaching," says Eckstein. "He never stops learning."
Case in point: Coming off two of the greatest seasons in baseball history, Bonds saw something in Eckstein's compact swing that piqued his curiosity. "I really like his approach," Bonds says, "so I asked him how he does it. I'd never seen anything like it."
Eckstein's hitting coach-his brother Ricky-happened to be on the trip. "I couldn't believe it," David says. "I looked over one day and there's Barry with my brother, talking about the fundamentals of what I do."
Trade secret? Nah. Eckstein gave it up. "It's all in the first three inches," he says, "starting the swing, keeping my hands in."
Bonds quickly adapted it into his swing. "I've been working on using it all spring," says Bonds, who peppered the Cactus League with 9 homers. "I never stop looking for things to try to make myself better. I can never stop thinking about being quick, and what Eckstein does could help me at my age. Right now, I beg pitchers to throw it as hard as they can. The catcher doesn't miss a pitch thrown 103 mph, does he? Well, I think of myself as 'catching' the ball with my bat, and letting the pitcher supply the power. Any little trigger at my age can't hurt."
Bonds also adopted Torii Hunter and a few other young stars in Japan. "We all went out to dinner, hung," says the Twins centerfielder. "What was interesting was that he treated us with a lot of respect. He told me how much he enjoyed playing with me. And he loved Eckstein. Barry really respects what he's made of himself."
"Watch Eckstein throw the ball across the infield, and it barely makes it," says Bonds. "Then get the game on, and he makes a great throw. He's special. I watched him make one great play, and it brought a tear to my
eye to think that someone could will himself to be a winning major league player. We can all learn something from him." And if barry hits 80 this year, we all know who to blame.
ESPN TOP HEADLINES
- Rangers stay alive, drop B's on Kreider OT tally
- Pacers' Hibbert accuses Battier of 'dirty' play
- LeBron says Jordan's scouting report wrong
- Sources: Nets contacted Celtics about Rivers