A fan entered the Lake Elsinore Diamond long before the gates swung open Thursday. He had hoped to get an autograph from Storm outfielder Darin Erstad.
There was that much expected of a guy who had only three professional games behind him. But Erstad’s reputation arrived long before him. Autograph hounds and the mere curious in Lake Elsinore want to know what all the fuss is regarding the Angels’ latest wunderkind.
Back home in Jamestown, N.D., they already know.
People in that leg-stretch-and-gas-stop along Interstate 94--midway between Bismarck and Fargo--had never seen such nosebleed heights as in June, when Erstad was the top pick in the baseball draft. This was folk hero territory.
First, he brought them a national football championship as Nebraska’s punter and kicker. He followed up by being named an All-American in baseball and was tabbed player of the year by College Sports magazine. Fodder enough for a town of 16,000 people.
Then Erstad was the first player taken in the baseball draft. Such a lofty accomplishment has pushed him past Rick Hieb, heretofore Jamestown High’s most illustrious graduate.
Sure, Hieb--Class of ’73 and a shuttle astronaut--walked in space. But what’s circling the earth compared with circling the bases?
“If you held a vote today, Darin would win,” said Larry Ukestad, Jamestown High’s principal since 1970. “There is no doubt about it.”
Erstad has done nothing to damage the reputation.
In less than a week, Erstad has wowed Angel officials much as he did the folks in Jamestown.
“I went to college hoping to be there three years, then get drafted,” Erstad said. “Then I wanted to play in the minor leagues. This is the life I chose. This was the plan.”
Erstad won’t go any further with that wish list, but it’s not too difficult to follow the train of thought.
From his first game with Lake Elsinore, people could see why the Angels used the No. 1 pick in the draft--their first since 1975--to take Erstad.
“The first time up, this pitcher got him looking with a great slider that painted the black,” Lake Elsinore pitching coach Howie Gershberg said. “I told Darin, ‘They all know you can hit the fastball. They’re going to see if you can hit a breaking pitch.’ The next time up, the pitcher threw the exact same pitch and Darin lined it for a single. This guy is something special.”
So special, in fact, the Angels drafted him despite having a talented and young group of outfielders who are terrorizing American League pitchers. Just where Erstad, 21, will fit among Tim Salmon (27), Jim Edmonds (25) and Garret Anderson (23) is unclear. But of the last five players taken first in the draft, two are already in the major leagues and two are a phone call away in triple A.
Odds are that something, or someone, will eventually have to make room for Erstad--and soon.
“He already looks seasoned,” said former Angel Bobby Grich, a roving instructor for the organization. “You can’t tell he’s right out of college. He looks like a good Class-A player already.”
Lake Elsinore is a sprawling metropolis compared to Jamestown.
“We’re getting bigger,” Ukestad said. “We just got a second prefix for our phone numbers.”
It’s not exactly Mayberry, but you can be sure it’s a small town.
“If you start a rumor on one end of town, it would reach the other end in about 30 seconds,” Erstad said.
It’s a nice place to live, but a tough place to get noticed.
Erstad was not recruited until his senior year. Even then, only Creighton and Nebraska came by. Both schools offered baseball scholarships.
Few, it seemed, knew what they were missing.
Erstad was a natural athlete who developed early. By the time he reached high school, he was a four-sport local wonder.
“When he was in the third grade, kids would come to the teacher and say, ‘Darin’s hitting the ball too far,’ ” said Dorothy Erstad, his mother. “The teacher would say, ‘Tell Darin to go play with the sixth graders the rest of the day.’ ”
High schools don’t have baseball teams in North Dakota, so he played for the local American Legion team. Jamestown finished state runner-up during his three years.
Erstad helped Jamestown High’s football team finish second in the state his senior year. In track, he was the state Class A 110- and 300-meter hurdle champion despite having arthroscopic surgery on his knee before the outdoor season.
And then there’s hockey.
“His slap shot was like a rifle shot,” Ukestad said. “He came down on a breakaway one time and shot so hard, it knocked the goalie on his butt and into the net.”
Which made Erstad hard to forget, state wide.
“We don’t have an abundance of professional athletes from North Dakota, so when somebody makes the pros, it gets advertised pretty good,” Ukestad said. “When someone is the No. 1 pick, it gets announced in capital letters.”
The Mets drafted Erstad, in the 13th round, out of high school, but he wasn’t ready for such a jump. He picked Nebraska.
“I had never faced competition outside of North Dakota,” Erstad said. “So I really didn’t know how I would do. I did OK.”
Erstad set six school records. Last season, he hit .410 with 19 home runs and 76 runs batted in.
“When that kid took batting practice, everyone stopped and watched,” said Oklahoma assistant coach Vern Ruhle. “Something special was going to happen.”
Erstad hit .429 with three home runs in five games against Oklahoma, which reached the College World Series. He went 2 for 4 in a memorable confrontation with Sooner pitcher Mark Redman, who was drafted in the first round by the Minnesota Twins.
“Darin mashed one that just hooked foul,” Nebraska assistant coach Mike Anderson said. “The Oklahoma coach walked out to settle Redman down. Then Redman called time out to regroup. Darin cleared the center-field fence with the next pitch.”
He had been named the Cape Cod League’s most valuable player in the summer of 1994 despite leaving early to join the Cornhusker football team. By the spring of 1995, his was the name most mentioned by Angel officials.
“He was far and away the best player available in the draft,” Angel General Manager Bill Bavasi said.
Jamestown can be sticky and hot in the summer, but that was where Erstad sweated out contract negotiations for two months.
It was a chance to come home and let an only-in-your-wildest-dreams year sink in.
Erstad won the kicking job for the Cornhuskers’ football team after the baseball coach badgered him into trying out at the end of his sophomore year. It meant practicing four hours with the football team, followed by another hour of batting practice.
It was worth it. On New Year’s Day, Nebraska clinched its first national championship since 1971.
Honors for baseball achievements soon piled up and the draft topped it off.
Yet, the talk around Jamestown this summer was about the home run Erstad hit playing for one of the two local amateur teams. It was fan appreciation day for the Jamestown Merchants and the manager had begged Erstad to play to boost the attendance.
In his first at-bat, Erstad’s home run cleared the power lines and landed in the James River beyond the right-field fence. Some say it landed on the other side of the river. No one could find the ball.
“It had to go 500 feet,” said Chuck Erstad, his father. “The pitcher said it was an honor. He said that in five years, he can say the longest home run he ever gave up was hit by the Angels’ Darin Erstad.”
Erstad became an Angel on July 27, signing a contract that included a $1.575-million signing bonus.
The money and attention has made him a name player for the California League. But if his ego has increased in proportion to his wallet, it doesn’t show.
Erstad was late for a pregame workout Thursday because of a communication snafu about transportation. He received polite applause from teammates when he rushed onto the field 15 minutes late, then spent the entire stretching session apologizing.
“We had a voluntary workout the other day and he was the first one there,” Gershberg said. “He’s that dedicated.”
A dangerous thing to link with Erstad’s skills.
He had three hits in his second game and drove in his first run. The next game, he had a double, a triple and two RBIs.
“He doesn’t swing like a college player,” Storm Manager Mitch Seoane said. “They will usually let the aluminum bat do the work. Darin gets his body into the swing.”
Erstad’s arrival hasn’t been a complete disaster for California League pitchers. He struck out four times in the first two games.
He struck out 24 times in 251 at-bats for Nebraska in his junior year.
“Pitchers here are a lot smarter,” Erstad said. “They throw breaking pitches for strikes and have command of three pitches. I haven’t seen too many pitches over the middle of the plate since I’ve been here.”
Nor is he likely to see many. Pitchers, like everyone else, have heard about Erstad.
“He is everything our scouting department said he would be,” Seoane said. “He hits for average, hits with power, has great speed and is a great fielder. What’s not to like?”