That benign episode during Wednesday night's Cardinal win against the Brewers piqued my interest, made me realize that perhaps I've overlooked something about Eckstein, something about his inner self that drove this little man to be the winner that he his. I realized then that I like so many others had been selling Eckstein short. It finally sunk in last night why fans of the Los Angeles Anaheim Angels of Anaheim in Los Angeles near Anaheim fell in love with Eckstein. His determination, his hustle, his passion for the game may be unparalleled in today's game, and it makes this man of small stature stand like a giant.
When the Cardinals acquired Eckstein almost in panic after the loss of Edgar Renteria to the Red Sox and the signing of Red Sox/Expos free agent shortstop Orlando Cabrera by LAAAALAA, I liked the signing. Eckstein was known as a winner. He anchored the infield when the Angels won the World Series over Dusty Baker's San Francisco Giant in 2002. He'd been there and done it and brought home the hardware.
The critical armchair GM's weren't far behind. Eckstein has no range. Eckstein has no throwing arm. Eckstein is a lousy lead-off hitter. Eckstein is too "Hollywood" for us. Yet for all the complaints, the incontrovertible proof was that in order for him to have achieved the level of performance he was at, David Eckstein had worked his fanny off day in and day out to earn and keep his job as a starting major league shortstop.
There was one other unavoidable fact when Eckstein was released by the shortsighted Angels that had to cause the Anti-Eckstein Faction considerable discomfort. Angels fans were literally in tears at word of his release. In a fan base reaction not seen perhaps since Gehrig left the Yankees has a group of fans been traumatized by the loss of their hero. I recall reading an article written by an Anaheim sportswriter whose daughter was inconsolable at the news. In Anaheim, David Eckstein wasn't just a baseball player. He was an institution and an asset to the community.
So, during the off-season, Cards GM Walt Jocketty signed Eckstein to a three-year contract valued at around $3 million per year, a bargain basement price for a starting shortstop with World Series credentials. Eckstein went to work on Day 1 of spring training, bonding with middle infield partner Mark Grudzielanek to form a dead-on double play combination that is the best in the National League. Eckstein never missed the opportunity to run out a ground ball or sign an autograph for an admiring youngster. It was clear from that first spring training that David Eckstein was the stuff of Cardinal Nation.
Not one to rest on his past accomplishments or the affection shown him since his arrival at Busch Stadium, Eckstein continues to play every aspect of this game with fire and determination. As impressed as I was in watching his hustle off the field between innings, his dash to third base on the wall-crawling triple to right was a sight. As hard as he was running and as determined as he was to reach third safely, his body movements were clearly controlled, practiced, and efficient. Not pretty, but effective, a statement that summarizes his entire game. Only his face, contorted by the force of his effort, evidenced how deeply he was reaching within himself to make all this happen. I wish I could have assembled a room full of kids, run replay after replay and said "Kids, this is how it is done right."
When Jocketty signed David Eckstein over the winter, I was excited because of the reputation he carried as a player. Now, with over half of his first season as a Cardinal, I'm even more excited to have Eckstein on the team because of the strength of his character, his mind-boggling determination and dedication, and his ability to adjust with each batter, and each pitch to each batter, to best position himself in the field. My hat is off to Walt Jocketty for showing why he is the best GM in baseball today in bringing Eckstein to Busch. By his hustle, his leadership, his performance, and his example, David Eckstein is clearly a keeper.
You can write to Rex Duncan at firstname.lastname@example.org