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Angels Take Outfielder in Out-of-the-Way Place : Baseball draft: No. 1 pick Darin Erstad, from North Dakota, became a prospect by starring at Nebraska.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

His high school didn’t field a baseball team, the local American Legion season ran three months--if the weather held--and he received more college scholarship offers in football and hockey. But Darin Erstad loved baseball most and he decided to play the outfield at Nebraska.

Wise move.

Soon enough, Erstad will be paid millions to play his favorite sport. The Angels made him the first selection in the amateur draft Thursday, and Erstad said he has punted his last football, slapped his last hockey puck.

San Diego, picking second, selected Ben Davis, a catcher from Malvern, Pa., and gave him a $1.3-million signing bonus. Jose Cruz Jr., son of the former major league outfielder, then went to Seattle. The Chicago Cubs selected Kerry Wood, a pitcher from Grand Prairie, Tex., and Oakland took Ariel Prieto, a pitcher who defected from Cuba, with the fifth pick.

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The Dodgers, with the 20th pick, selected David Yocum, a left-handed pitcher from Florida State.

The Angels selected pitcher Jarrod Washburn from Wisconsin Oshkosh in the second round.

“My whole house is full of people,” said Erstad, 20, in a conference call from his home in Jamestown, N.D. “It’s kind of hard to believe. The money’s not going to change who I am. I play the game because I love it.”

Erstad, who will be represented by Newport Beach-based agent Jeff Moorad, said he’s eager to sign and begin playing. A few weeks ago, Tim Mead, assistant general manager, and Bob Fontaine Jr., director of scouting and player personnel, went to Jamestown to meet with Erstad and his family.

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Last season’s top pick, Florida State pitcher Paul Wilson, received a signing bonus worth about $1.5 million from the New York Mets. It probably will take a similar bonus for the Angels to sign Erstad. That sort of deal might have posed a problem for the cash-strapped club in the past, but with Disney set to buy 25% of the team, it shouldn’t hold up negotiations.

“As far as how quickly I sign, I can’t really say,” Erstad said. “I want to do it fast, so I can get started.”

When he signs, he will probably be assigned to Class-A Lake Elsinore or double-A Midland (Tex.). Asked what the timetable is for a player of Erstad’s caliber and experience, Fontaine said he didn’t know.

“Every year I’m asked that question [about a draft pick] and every year I say the same thing: ‘There is no timetable,’ ” Fontaine said. “A lot is going to depend on when we come to an agreement. I don’t think where he starts is as important as when he starts.”

Erstad was an honorable mention for the All-Big Eight team as a freshman at Nebraska, a first-team selection as a sophomore and co-player of the year this past season. He had a career average of .356 with 41 home runs and 182 runs batted in. This season, he hit .410 with 19 homers and 76 RBIs in 58 games.

“We were pretty certain early on he was one of the names we would consider,” Fontaine said. “As we scouted him through this season, we confirmed that he would probably be the one. I can’t give you a name to say Darin Erstad reminds me of one player in particular. Hopefully, someday I’ll be able to say a certain player reminds me of Darin Erstad.”

This was only the second time the Angels have had the first pick in the draft. Twenty years ago, they selected Danny Goodwin, a catcher from Southern University.

Jamestown is barely on the map for most baseball scouts, but with his selection Thursday, Erstad proved the major leagues will find you if you’re talented. Erstad, a punter on Nebraska’s 1994 national championship football team and North Dakota’s Athlete of the Year in 1992, said he wasn’t observed by college or pro baseball scouts until he was 17.

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Slowly but steadily, Erstad began to attract attention, first as a hard-hitting center fielder and pitcher for the Jamestown Legion Eagles in ’92 and later as an all-conference outfielder at Nebraska.

“Our interest started when he went to Nebraska,” Fontaine said.

Erstad, who kicked a school-record 50-yard field goal in high school, played baseball and football at Nebraska. But he could have played Division I college hockey just as easily. As a senior in high school, he scored 36 goals with 24 assists in 26 games. He also was the North Dakota high school hurdles champion in track and field.

Despite the lack of a high school baseball team, Erstad excelled during summer Legion ball. He batted .492 and was 10-2 with a 2.18 earned-run average in his final season. He was selected by the Mets in the 13th round of the ’92 draft, but decided to attend Nebraska.

If all goes as expected, he won’t be the only player from North Dakota in the majors. Texas pitcher Rick Helling also is from North Dakota.

“It’s a good baseball state,” Fontaine said. “The only problem is the weather . . . there just haven’t been very many people drafted from North Dakota.”

Erstad said his love for baseball stems from playing on warm summer nights as a youngster. He, like most North Dakota residents, savored the chance to be outdoors after long, cold winters.

“It was the one time to relax and enjoy the game,” he said. “I just seemed to enjoy it. Football made me grow up in a hurry, playing in front of big crowds [at Nebraska] and for the national championship.”

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Erstad occasionally attended Twins games at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, the closest major league ballpark to his hometown. He’s also been to Dodger Stadium, Fenway Park and Wrigley Field.

Asked how he would celebrate Thursday night, he said:

“I’ll probably go to a Legion game, then my parents are having a get-together at the Elks club.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

The Chosen

The top pick in major league baseball’s annual amateur draft has been a blessing and a bust. Many have become successful; some were rarely heard from again. Here’s a look the first pick since the draft started:

Year Player Position Chosen By 1965 Rick Monday OF Kansas City 1966 Steve Chilcott P Mets 1967 Ron Blomberg IF Yankees 1968 Tim Foli IF Mets 1969 Jeff Burroughs OF Washington 1970 Mike Ivie C San Diego 1971 Danny Goodwin C White Sox 1972 Dave Roberts IF Padres 1973 David Clyde P Texas 1974 Bill Almon IF San Diego 1975 Danny Goodwin C Angels 1976 Floyd Bannister P Houston 1977 Harold Baines OF White Sox 1978 Bob Horner IF Atlanta 1979 Al Chambers OF Seattle 1980 Darryl Strawberry OF Mets 1981 Mike Moore P Seattle 1982 Shawon Dunston IF Cubs 1983 Tim Belcher P Minnesota 1984 Shawn Abner OF San Diego 1985 B.J. Surhoff C Milwaukee 1986 Jeff King IF Pittsburgh 1987 Ken Griffey Jr. OF Seattle 1988 Andy Benes P San Diego 1989 Ben McDonald P Baltimore 1990 Chipper Jones IF Atlanta 1991 Brien Taylor P Yankees 1992 Phil Nevin IF Houston 1993 Alex Rodriguez IF Seattle 1994 Paul Wilson P Mets

* Source: Major League Baseball


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