By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
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By Gustavo Arellano
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"Oh, my goodness!" says Darin Erstad when you ask him if it really feels like 10 years since he became a big-league baseball player, and although he says many other things during a long chat in the Anaheim Stadium dugout on a scorching September afternoon, this is somehow the most startling. Who talks like that anymore?
Certainly none of the other Angels players who've come out for extra batting practice more than four hours before a night game. With the cavernous stadium all to themselves, out of the earshot of fans and the range of microphones, they shoot the breeze with more flavorful phrases.
Yet Erstad's reflexive use of that benign exclamation totally figures. He's been taking—and talking—the high road since he arrived in Orange County a decade ago. It's the path he took to get here from Jamestown, North Dakota, a settlement so small his high school didn't have a baseball team. Erstad has become famous for his potatoes-and-gravy flavor. Rich, too. The story of his big-league career is such an ode to Saturday-matinee values that when the Walt Disney Co. owned the Angels it feared the public-relations fallout of trading him after the 2002 season, canceling a deal at the last minute and instead giving Erstad a four-year contract worth some $32 million.
Besides, those other guys yakking it up around the batting cage are mostly rookies. They're still getting used to the Angels team culture, still being inculcated with the twin principles of certain die-hard ethics and invariably dirty uniforms, still learning how those elements add up to an annual run at a playoff spot.
"Once in a while we get guys who maybe have an attitude that's a little bit different," says Erstad. "But with the core group we have, they just stick out like a sore thumb. Peer pressure still works, even on this level. They end up feeling uncomfortable because that's not the way it's done around here. They have to get used to that."
Truth is, we're all still getting used to that. The Angels have changed a lot since Erstad arrived 10 years ago, and that's without considering the weirdness of their three name changes, from the California Angels to the Anaheim Angels to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. The even-weirderness is their three postseason appearances—including a World Series championship—in the past four years, and the prospect of yet another in the dwindling weeks of this season. A franchise that until recently was reputed to be cursed has become famous for its good luck charm. Yeah, the Rally Monkey. But Darin Erstad showed up six years earlier, in the waning days of the 1996 season. He's the Angels' original Rally Monkey.
Does it really feel like 10 years since then?
"No, it's like the blink of an eye," says Erstad. "On one hand, the season is such a marathon. But you are so locked in on what you're doing, day after day, that there's no time to sit back and consider it. You love doing it, you love grinding it out every day, and the next thing you know—boom—it's 10 years. You're like . . . 'Oh, my goodness!'"
* * *
This may be Erstad's last season with the Angels. His big contract expires after the last game, and he hasn't been putting up the kind of numbers that would justify another one; he's spent most of the season on the disabled list with an injury to his right ankle that will require surgery. Rather than get the surgery immediately, which would have ended his season, Erstad has pursued a temporary remedy through physical therapy, enabling him to rejoin the Angels on Sept. 1 in hopes of helping them muster a late rally toward the playoffs.
"I'm obligated to this team. I'm obligated to my teammates," he reasons. "If there's anything I can do to help the team win, I'm gonna do it."
Essentially, that means that the superstar will be reduced to a role player, coming into games as a late-inning defensive replacement at first base and getting occasional plate appearances as a pinch hitter.
"It's miserable," Erstad acknowledges. "When I was starting every day, I knew how to get ready for a game. I was on automatic pilot. Now I'm doing something I've never done before. There's a lot of uncertainty. I've been on the bench all night, but in the eighth inning somebody gets a two-out hit, a run scores, we're up by one and—boom—I'm in the game."
But in Erstad's first at-bat since June, he contributed a sacrifice bunt to a 10th-inning rally that earned the Angels a victory in Detroit. It was three days before he came to the plate again, as a pinch hitter late in a game against Baltimore. He smacked a double, and the Angels went on to win again.
This stuff is straight from the script that Erstad has been writing since he got here, but it probably won't be enough to keep him here. The Angels aren't part of the Disney movie anymore, and current owner Arte Moreno hasn't let sentiment get in the way of personnel decisions. Just ask Troy Glaus, Bengie Molina, Scott Spezio or Troy Percival, crucial members of the Angels 2002 World Series team, cut loose when the organization figured somebody in their farm system could do their jobs for less money.