The skies darken and rumble above the head of the Littlest Angel, who doesn’t appear to notice.
“Great baseball weather,” David Eckstein says, smiling underneath three long-sleeved shirts and thick sweat pants and cleats caked in red Georgia clay.
He is standing in the outfield of a nearly deserted college baseball stadium, playing catch with teenagers and young minor leaguers, his fourth hour of work on this absurd January day.
The temperature dips into the 30s. There are no fans. There is no music. Nobody speaks. The only sounds are the thump of leather and the gentle buzz of the ball.
Then, suddenly, there is a rat-tat-tat from the clouds.
“It’s sleeting!” somebody shouts, and blowing ice is everywhere, pelting their gloves and peppering their faces and sliding into their shirts.
The kids run for cover.
Eckstein walks to shortstop.
His brother Rick walks to home plate with a bucket of frayed balls and begins hitting him grounders.
The kids are looking at them like they are crazy. But the kids are looking at it wrong.
For Eckstein, this isn’t only sleet. This is the New York Yankees in October. This is the doubt of every spring. This is the clattering of doom he believes he must fight against every moment, even in the weeks after his greatest moment.
The ice is coming down hard now, collecting in the corners of the dugout, everyone silently staring as a World Series champion catches grounder after grounder after grounder.
“Dry rain!” David Eckstein shouts, cold drops falling from his reddened nose and into his grin. “It’s only dry rain!”
Like those blinking flashbulbs that surrounded them with every final out in every final game last autumn, the Angels were brilliant and loud ... and gone.
They emerged from behind the Orange curtain to win a World Series championship and dominate the national sports scene for several chilling weeks.
Then, just as quickly, they disappeared into a winter filled with a question.
Will this change them?
Will their success affect their rare championship work ethic and clubhouse chemistry? How can they continue to work so hard and care so much?
That’s what happens to flashbulbs, right? One pop and they’re burned?
One month before the start of spring training, I showed up at David Eckstein’s winter workout home looking for the answer.
After all, nobody was touched more by the Angel success than this boyish curiosity turned national inspiration.
One minute, Eckstein was a freak of nature, a second baseman forced to play shortstop, a guy with small hands and a funky throw, a castoff with a baby face and bad haircut.
The next minute, the sports world was watching him stare down Roger Clemens and run around Barry Bonds and become one of the most unlikely champion shortstops in baseball history.
All of this was certain to change him, right?
I carried the question to a brick house in a wooded neighborhood near the University of Georgia.
Where I promptly tripped over a pile of clothes in a basement hallway.
They were outside Eckstein’s bedroom. Those were his clothes.
The World Series winner is spending his winter in a windowless room, without a dresser, without a mirror, and without a mortgage.
His spoils of victory are a bed, a TV, and a batting cage in the garage of the house that belongs to his brother Rick.
“I never needed much,” Eckstein said, shrugging.
I then squeezed into his sister’s silver Nissan Maxima, the same car he drove last year, more than 60,000 miles, cloth seats, no CD player because he owns no CDs.
“I know some people might think this looks funny when I drive it in the players’ lot,” Eckstein said. “But I’ve never understood judging somebody by his car.”
He made nearly as much money for his World Series share as his salary -- $278,000 for World Series, $280,000 in salary -- but he has spent little.
He bought some department store suits. He bought his brother a video camera and computer to help dissect his swing.
His fanciest vacation was a trip to a Florida beach, where he brought his glove and played catch.
His fanciest meal was, well, OK, this is something.
It occurred in the White House, in November, after President Bush instructed commentator George Will to invite five important baseball folks for a hot-stove dinner.
Besides Eckstein, there were Curt Schilling, Charles Johnson, Todd Helton and Larry Lucchino.
The other four guys brought their wives. Eckstein brought his mom.
The other four guys, particularly Schilling, dominated the conversation. But Eckstein had the game-winning hit.
After the meal had ended, Bush sidled up to Patricia Eckstein.
“He said, ‘I might not be the best president, but I will always hold up the integrity of this office. That’s why I like your son so much. He plays the game with such integrity,’ ” David recalled.
At which point, the other four baseball folks climbed into their fancy cars and were whisked away while Eckstein and his mother walked down the White House driveway to their hotel across the street.
“I don’t think I’ve changed, Mr. Plaschke,” he said. “I don’t think I can change.”
The winter workday of baseball’s brightest new star begins in a concrete tunnel, next to a bucket of balls held together by electrical tape, in front of an old batting tee, with Eckstein taking swings into a frayed net.
The bowels of the University of Georgia’s Foley Field are cold and hard and perfect for the 9 a.m. beginning of Eckstein’s daily five-hour workout.
Above his head whirs a giant space heater. Around him are a couple of Class-A prospects who occasionally pinch themselves.
“This whole thing with David is unbelievable,” said Chaz Lytle, a Pittsburgh Pirate prospect. “Just a couple of months ago, I was watching him on TV. And now ... “
And now, here, with nobody watching, he’s even more impressive.
Eckstein will hit dozens of balls off the tee, then step into a cage and hit dozens off balls pitched by Rick, the Georgia batting coach who has become an off-season hitting guru to several prospects.
Eckstein then will walk over to the basement of the Georgia Coliseum and lift weights for two hours. After that, he will walk across the hall into the gym and run hundreds of steps.
Then he will return to the field and catch grounders, something he wouldn’t have done earlier in the day, because now it’s a whopping 35 degrees instead of the early-morning 20.
Afterward, he will go home and watch it all on tape.
“It’s unbelievable to sit there and say that we were champions,” Eckstein said, sitting over a plain kitchen table when his work is finished. “Everything I’ve had to do in my life, winning the world championship proved that it all worked.”
He paused, and shook his head.
“But we have to try to win another one,” he said. “We have to be better. I have to be better. I need to be ready for that. Nothing is safe. Not my position, not anything. That’s how I feel, and I know that’s how our entire team feels.”
Sure enough, last month, his phone rang, it was Darin Erstad, and he was shouting.
“He said, ‘What are you doing! You better be working! We’ve got to do this again!’ ” Eckstein said. “I told him, well, um, yeah, I was doing a few things.”
The first thing to change would be the hair, right?
Surely the Hollywood ending would have convinced Eckstein to get a Hollywood haircut, either buzzing or layering or shaping those blond locks so he looks older than 10?
Well, turns out, something about the hair has changed.
Now his brother cuts it for free.
“I’m going to keep wearing it like this until it comes back in style,” Eckstein said.
Few things in sports were more hip last year than the Angels’ championship run, which even Eckstein admits was surreal.
He said his best memory of the postseason was Scott Spiezio’s three-run homer in the Game 6 comeback against the San Francisco Giants.
“You watch the replay, watch our bench, see how none of us moved when the ball was hit,” he said. “Whenever something is hit hard, we move. But we had no idea it was going out.”
He said another memory is of Erstad and Shawn Wooten’s impromptu speech on the bus before Game 6, as they were leaving the airport after returning from San Francisco trailing three games to two.
“All of a sudden, they started telling everyone, ‘Before this season, if there was a contract that said you had to win two games at home to win the World Series, would you sign it? Would you? Would you?’ ” Eckstein recalled. “Right then, we all agreed we would sign it, and we could do it.”
His Game 7 celebration was typical Eckstein. While other Angels hit the streets to party, Eckstein returned to his Newport Beach apartment where he was hosting several family members.
He had given one of them his bed, so he slept on an air mattress on the floor.
“I couldn’t sleep, so in the middle of the night, I lay there watching ESPN ‘SportsCenter,’ over and over and over again,” he said.
A couple of days later, though, he knew things were different. He was surrounded by fans in, of all perfectly Eckstein places, a Costco.
“Some lady ran up to me and asked me to talk to her husband on the cell phone,” he said. “I thought, why not? But I knew things had changed.”
The next day, he was applauded in a Baja Fresh restaurant, heady stuff for a guy who previously had the world’s most unusual fan club: two women wearing shirts with his name misspelled.
“My fan club invited me to a meeting this year,” he recalled. “I said, ‘What, the three of us?’ ”
Ah, the good ol’ days.
Since the World Series, Eckstein has been besieged by fans in Japan during a major league all-star barnstorming tour, spent an entire day signing autographs for every student at an elementary school, and appeared on a TV series called “She Spies.”
He appeared in one card show but felt so bad about taking the money that he has turned down subsequent invitations.
“Why would I charge for something if, when you see me walking to my car, I’d do it for free?” he said.
He has completed the trifecta of working out on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
Has David Eckstein changed?
After examining his house and his car and his schedule, I realized, all I had to do was look at his left hand.
It contains a blister the size of a silver dollar, a hitting blister, the kind that heals during the winters of most players who aren’t David Eckstein.
“This blister may never go away,” he said, staring brightly into his palm, his infected skin a mark of beauty, his shirts chilled by the dry rain.
Bill Plaschke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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