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Eckstein Grasps Cardinal Numbers

Special to The Times

All of the red hanging in his clubhouse cubicle is that of the St. Louis Cardinals and not the Angels, but it’s the unseen green that best measures the extent of David Eckstein’s transition.

Dumped by the Angels in December with no ceremony, little communication and a conditional contract offer given their desire to replace him with Orlando Cabrera, it was only three days later that Eckstein landed on a pile of cash.

Operating from Wisteria Lane in their desperation to replace Edgar Renteria as the well of available shortstops rapidly evaporated, the Cardinals signed Eckstein to a three-year, $10.25-million contract which, as he observed prior to a recent workout, “would never have happened in Anaheim.”

In Anaheim, where he was the leadoff catalyst for the 2002 World Series winner, respected by teammates for his overachieving ethic and one of the most popular Angels ever among fans, his halo slowly deteriorated in the front office.

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During a salary arbitration hearing in February 2004, club representatives denigrated Eckstein beyond the accepted scope of that often acrimonious process.

The Angels compared his range and arm to that of a triple-A shortstop, according to people who have read the transcript, and said that by recording only a .325 on-base percentage in 2003 he had nullified the ability of the club’s No. 2 batter, Darin Erstad, to hit with runners on base.

Despite management’s belittling, the arbitrators sided with Eckstein. He was awarded the $2.15-million salary he sought for 2004, but beyond his bank account it was largely a pyrrhic victory in that it jeopardized his future employment with the Angels, who were determined to upgrade while avoiding future arbitration with Eckstein.

“The Angels attacked me any way they could, but they were just trying to win the case,” Eckstein said of the 2004 arbitration. “It’s a business, and I didn’t take it personally.

“It was no more than you read about me in the papers, and the way I look at it, if I was as bad as they said I was, why were they putting me out there every game, why did they continue to put me out there last year? The Angels were the ones making that decision.

“Every year there was skepticism, every year they were going to get somebody else, so there was nothing new.”

The battering Eckstein absorbed in the arbitration hearing foreshadowed the four-year, $32-million signing of Cabrera on Dec. 20, the deadline for big league clubs to offer contracts to their own players.

After a month of virtually no contact, according to Eckstein, General Manager Bill Stoneman called his agent at 5:30 on the night of the deadline with a one-year proposal for more than he is making in the first year of his deal with the Cardinals. But the Angels, Eckstein said, told him that the offer was only good if they didn’t sign Cabrera later that night.

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“The Angels were asking me to say yes to something that wasn’t even really there,” Eckstein said. “They were making the offer only as an alternative if they didn’t sign Cabrera.

“It seemed like they had already made up their mind, and at that late point I was willing to put my future in God’s hands and take the results.

“I loved playing in Anaheim and will always be thankful for the opportunity the Angels gave me to play in the big leagues, but I just wish they could have been more open with me about the situation as it evolved.

“The main thing now is that I have another opportunity and couldn’t ask for a better scenario. I remain confident of my ability and convinced that no matter what went into the Angels’ decision it wasn’t about my numbers. I did what a leadoff hitter should do last year, what a shortstop should do.”

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Eckstein led major league shortstops with a .988 fielding percentage. His batting average improved from .252 in an injury-marred 2003 season to .276, although his on-base percentage of .339 was only slightly improved, far below his .363 of 2002 and unacceptable in the leadoff role, which is also the spot he will fill for the defending National League champions.

It wasn’t easy following the bouncing shortstops during the off-season.

Renteria received a four-year, $40-million contract to replace Cabrera in Boston, Cabrera replaced Eckstein in Anaheim, and Eckstein replaced Renteria in St. Louis, joining a list of celebrated Cardinal shortstops that includes Leo Durocher, Marty Marion, Dick Groat, Dal Maxvill, Garry Templeton and Ozzie Smith.

The latter, a Hall of Fame defensive wizard, called Eckstein to welcome him to a passionate baseball city and advise him to just be himself.

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“I don’t have Renteria’s power at the plate or flash in the field, but there are different ways to go about it,” Eckstein said, echoing Cardinal Manager Tony La Russa.

“Edgar and David have different strengths, and you win games in different ways,” La Russa said. “If you’re looking for a middle-of-the-lineup-type shortstop, you’d lean to Edgar. If you’re looking for a leadoff hitter, you’d lean to David. Both are plus base stealers, runners and intense competitors.

“People talk about David’s arm, but it’s a playable arm, and he’s won more World Series titles than a lot of guys in our clubhouse.”

In addition, a Cardinal official said, there are the financial considerations.

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“Is Renteria really worth $7 million more a year than Eckstein?” the official said. “We didn’t think so.”

The Cardinals will try to repeat in the NL while replacing three key 2004 contributors in their regular lineup: Renteria, catcher Mike Matheny and second baseman Tony Womack.

Eckstein, vital at the top of the lineup, has had a blistering spring, and one way or another figures to have a memorable year.

* His father, Herbert “Whitey” Eckstein, a city commissioner for 16 years, survived the primary election for mayor of Sanford, Fla., before losing Tuesday night’s two-person runoff.

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* He will be married Nov. 26 to actress Ashley Drane, who appears on WB’s “Blue Collar TV,” and is said to have had a replica Eckstein jersey even before they were introduced.

The Drane-Eckstein pairing may set a record for wholesomeness.

“I play baseball but don’t live the lifestyle,” Eckstein said, “and she’s an actress who is not a typical actress. She doesn’t smoke, drink or party. We both have high moral beliefs and understand that there may be periods when we don’t see each other because of our professions.”

Unemployed briefly in December, Eckstein’s profession has since been enhanced by the color of money.

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