"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.
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"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.
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.
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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