Erstad Is Leader on This Ship

Times Staff Writer

The David Eckstein bandwagon gained passengers and momentum after the Angels’ division series win over the New York Yankees, with fans and media members around the country beginning to notice the little sparkplug of a shortstop and Manager Mike Scioscia touting him as a most valuable player candidate.

The recognition was well-deserved, but before the American League championship series against the Minnesota Twins started last week, Eckstein, almost embarrassed about all the attention, pulled a reporter aside to set the record straight.

“Darin Erstad is the real leader of this club,” Eckstein said. “He shows us how the game should be played. We look to him.”


The Angels looked to Erstad in the seventh inning of a scoreless game Saturday night, and the Angel center fielder showed them the way, leading off with a single, stealing second with a head-first dive, taking third on an error and scoring the first run of the game on Troy Glaus’ single.

Erstad then sparked a five-run rally in the eighth with a leadoff single to help the Angels beat the Twins, 7-1, before 44,830 in Edison Field, giving the Angels a commanding 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series and moving them within one victory of the first World Series berth in the 42-year history of the franchise.

“From my first day in the organization, when I stepped in, you could tell Darin was the guy everyone looked up to here,” Eckstein said. “He gives up his body on defense. He makes things happen on offense. If the pitcher is tough, he finds a way to get on base and create havoc, as he proved again tonight.”

The Angels managed only two singles off Minnesota ace Brad Radke in the first six innings when Erstad, the team leader with 14 postseason hits, opened the seventh. With a 1-and-2 count, Erstad reached for a low-and-away changeup and blooped a hit to shallow right-center field.

Erstad had the green light with a 3-and-1 count on Tim Salmon, got a good jump and took off for second base. Catcher A.J. Pierzynski’s throw bounced past second and into center field, and Erstad, temporarily disoriented because his helmet covered his eyes, took his next cue from the fans.

“By the sounds of the crowd, I figured something had happened, and then I saw the ball in the outfield,” Erstad said. “I couldn’t even see third base, so I had to knock [the helmet] off. I felt like a Little Leaguer with my helmet over my eyes.”

Two batters later, Erstad’s teammates were pounding that helmet as he returned to the dugout with the Angels’ first run. After Erstad’s eighth-inning hit and run, he’s batting .353 with seven runs in a postseason that gets more exhilarating by the day.

“It’s becoming more unreal as you go through it,” Erstad said. “You play such intense games night after night. It’s amazing. For all the tough times we’ve been through, this is your reward.”

Erstad and tough times were running mates in 2001, when the stress of a painful divorce and several nagging injuries conspired against him. He brooded through the entire season, hitting .258 with nine homers and 63 runs batted in. He was moody, sometimes aloof and often unapproachable. For so long a model teammate, Erstad seemed to distance himself from the Angels.

“I don’t know what the heck I was last year, but I didn’t like it,” Erstad said. “It’s safe to say everyone goes through tough times in life. You have two choices; you can fold up the tent and pack it in or let it make you stronger. I chose the latter. Tough times make you appreciate what you have--that’s the best way I can put it. No question, I feel different this year. I’m me. Myself.”

The Angels are glad to have him back. Nearly traded to the Chicago White Sox over the winter, Erstad hit .283 with 10 homers and 73 RBIs this season and was rewarded with a four-year, $32-million contract extension on Aug. 3. The energy, the spark, the verve with which Erstad has played the game for so long has returned.

“It was a tough year for him last year,” Angel bench coach Joe Maddon said of Erstad. “We’re not robots. We’re affected by the human condition. Now, he’s much happier, he has a freer mind. He’s able to focus. He has less of an edge, and when you combine that with his usual intensity, and you have a pretty good player. You definitely see more of a joy about him.”