Eckstein more than ‘scrappy’
There is a cartoon character in the Eckstein household, but it’s not the scrappy little infielder.
It’s his wife. She wields a green lightsaber, trains under Anakin Skywalker and kisses a two-time World Series champion good night.
Ashley Eckstein commutes to work from San Diego, where her husband, David, plays second base for the Padres. In Hollywood, she’s the voice for the Ahsoka Tano character in the “Clone Wars” animated series.
Her character might live forever, at least in reruns. Her husband might not play forever, but he’s nine years into his career, well above average for a major leaguer.
That is because he is well above average for a major leaguer. You don’t last nearly a decade in the majors on “scrappy” alone, notwithstanding the unwritten rule that every story about David Eckstein must describe him with that adjective.
“Everybody says he’s short, he’s scrappy, he’s a gamer,” Padres closer Heath Bell said. “He’s a great baseball player. You don’t hear that. You just hear he’s a scrappy ballplayer.”
He’s not a franchise player, not even close, but you can win a championship with him. He’s the only starting shortstop to play on a World Series winner in each league, for the Angels in 2002 and the St. Louis Cardinals in 2006.
“He does something every night -- whether it’s on offense, defense or on the basepaths -- to make the club better,” Padres General Manager Kevin Towers said. “There’s a reason the guy seems like he’s on a winner everywhere he goes.”
This year’s Padres, a winner? That might be beyond his powers, or his wife’s superpowers.
But these Padres might not be destined for oblivion. They already have beaten Tim Lincecum and Brad Lidge, and they’re the only one of the Dodgers’ National League West rivals with a winning record.
Not bad for a team that lost a one-game wild-card playoff two years ago, lost 99 games last year, kicked franchise icon Trevor Hoffman into free agency and grabbed four pitchers off the scrap heap in the final two weeks of spring training.
“I don’t know if we’re a 100-win team or a 100-loss team,” Towers said.
“But our chemistry is outstanding. From the start of spring training, they were able to put last year in the rearview mirror. I don’t think the ’08 club ever did.”
They have elite players in ace Jake Peavy and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, a fine No. 2 starter in Chris Young, a terrific closer in Bell.
And they have Eckstein, the accidental shortstop. He was a second baseman in college, and in the minor leagues, all 5 feet 6 inches of him.
The Angels plugged him in at shortstop eight years ago, because someone had to play there, and all of a sudden he was a scrappy little shortstop.
If you’ve seen him throw, you know why. He’s a shotputter from shortstop, shoving the ball toward first base with every last bit of oomph he can muster.
“I can’t watch the way I throw,” Eckstein said. “It’s horrendous.”
But he got scrappy points on offense too, for getting hit by a pitch all the time and for a relatively low on-base plus slugging percentage, as if slugging percentage would ever be a part of his game.
We’d all prefer Hanley Ramirez, but Eckstein gets to first base at an above-average rate, gets the ball to first base on defense and delights managers with his proficiency in areas statistical analysts seldom measure and therefore tend to dismiss.
He excels in defensive positioning, adjusting on instinct, taking a quick first step, throwing accurately if not artistically. He excels at bat control, executing the hit-and-run and sacrifice bunt, hitting behind the runner, working the count, fouling off pitches, wearing down pitchers. The Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw made 23 pitches to Eckstein in one game this month, in three at-bats.
“I don’t ever want to discount his tools. He has them,” Padres Manager Bud Black said. “But there’s a lot more to this game than just pure physical tools.”
Eckstein turned 34 this year, more the grizzled veteran than the Disney mascot on the Angels’ championship squad. He was a free agent last winter, and these thoughts nagged at him: How good could I be if I actually played my best position? How could I complete my career without the chance to find out?
He was coming off arguably the worst season of his career, coming into the worst free-agent market in years. He nonetheless told his agent to reject any offers to play shortstop, that he wanted to play second base. The Padres said yes, with a catch.
“They told me they had no money to offer,” Eckstein said.
He said yes, for $850,000, a pay cut of 81%. After four years in Anaheim and three in St. Louis, he has landed in Toronto, Arizona and now San Diego within the last two years, labeled as scrappy wherever he goes.
“I don’t look the part,” he said. “I guess I don’t look like I have the talent, so you get thrust with ‘scrappy,’ ” he said. “If I were in a different body, I think there would be different things said.”
But here he is, in a new uniform, batting over .300 for a team over .500. The Padres’ website did a story on the new guy last week.
The first two words were “David Eckstein.” The seventh word was “scrappy.”
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