Covering the bases with Angels good guy Darin Erstad

Erstad is only 32, but it's always been easy to imagine how he's going to look as an old man. His face is angular, his hair thinning, he's got a scraggly beard and his bottom lip often bulges with a chaw of tobacco. Lately, it's more than that, though. His body has taken a beating from a style of play that is short on gracefulness and fueled by an intensity that never allows him to consider his longevity. At bat, he has a swing from a slasher flick. On the bases, he runs as if for his life. At first base, where he has won one Gold Glove for fielding excellence, he is always diving for ground balls across the infield's hard cinders. In the outfield, where he has earned another, he's known for running into fences while chasing flies.

"Has that taken years off my baseball career? No question," says Erstad, who at this point doubts he could play even one full game with his bum ankle. "But I made a choice a long time ago about how I wanted to play this game . . . on second thought, I don't even know if I really made a choice. It's just the way I've always played."

There was a time when Erstad was considered among the game's greatest young stars. In 1998, his second full season, he made the American League All-Star team. In 2000, when he was 26, he produced one of the best seasons, by anybody, of all time—batted .355 with 240 hits, 25 home runs, scored 100 runs and drove in 100 more, while stealing 28 bases. But he's never hit .300 again, and his career batting average is .286.

Erstad on base
Erstad on base

Some people are disappointed by that. Erstad? Not so much. In his greatest statistical years, the Angels didn't go to the playoffs.

"Yeah, those big seasons were great and all," he says, "but I have way more vivid images of jumping on piles [of celebrating teammates] in the playoffs and World Series. I just don't look much at that other stuff. There's only one thing in my mind, as far as teams go, and it's either 'we won' or 'we lost.'

"Personally, I mean, I look back on 2000 and ask myself, 'Why can't I re-create those swings?' I was comfortable that whole year. When I got my pitch, I did not miss it. I just didn't. And I got a lot of bloopers to fall. Everything went right. I have never come close to doing that again and I don't . . . well . . . you know, I'd love to do that again and win too. That would be great. But it's just not in the cards."

Erstad exhales hard. He inhales deeply.

"Twenty years from now, I have to be able to wake up in the morning, comb whatever hair I have left on my head, and be able to look at myself in the mirror comfortably," he says. "The only way I'll be able to do that is being able to say I gave everything I had, no 'ifs,' 'ands' or 'buts.' I don't have to look at the numbers. They've been up and down. I know my effort has always been there. That, for me, is important."

*   *   *

Suddenly, all this talk has gotten far too heavy. Erstad laughs, generally embarrassed for talking so much about himself, gently resentful that he was lured into doing it.

"I don't like to analyze that stuff. I just be myself," he says. "If I look at it, yeah, I lead by example. But if you put it into words then you're not leading by example anymore, are you? I just do what I do. I'm not big on trying to explain it."

Erstad wants to be back with the Angels next year.

"Obviously, I'd love to stay. Everybody knows that," he says. "I'm proud of what we have accomplished here, and I'm proud of the way we accomplished it—that we have done it right.

"When you're on the field, it's really a nice feeling to have everybody together, cheering for each other, rooting for each other. It just makes the game more fun than going out there and doing it by yourself."

Erstad catches himself again, this time once and for all.

"We're talking about stuff that isn't even on the radar screen for me," he says. "We're talking about the future, but right now I'm focused on trying to get to the playoffs. I'm focused on tonight. The rest of it is icing on the cake. We'll see how it goes."

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