A career year is usually defined as a player's finest
statistical season. Kevin Elster, the Pirates' new shortstop,
introduced a new interpretation of that term in '96 when he
crammed what seemed to be an entire career's worth of stats into
one year. Last season in Texas, Elster hit 24 home runs and
knocked in 99 runs, figures representing well over half the
journeyman's combined output in those two categories his first
nine years in the majors.
A nonroster invitee to the Rangers' camp last spring, Elster
found his way into Texas's every-day lineup after the team's
regular shortstop, Benji Gil, was sidelined with a back injury.
Elster stunned everybody, including himself, with his offensive
production. "All season I made a conscious effort not to think
about how well I was hitting the ball," says Elster, who batted
.252 and had 32 doubles to go along with his power numbers. "I
figured it might be dangerous to overanalyze it."
What Elster is most proud of, though, is not his productive
hitting but the fact that he started 155 games, providing
stability to a fragile Rangers club on its way to the American
League West title. This is the same guy who played 49 total
games with three teams from 1992 through '95 because of a
shoulder injury that nearly forced him to retire.
In the off-season, however, Texas committed to playing the
rehabilitated Gil in '97. So Elster, a fledgling actor who had a
role in the film Little Big League, traveled to baseball's
version of Little Big League--Pittsburgh. He was the only
free-agent acquisition last winter for the cash-poor Pirates,
who needed to add punch at the plate after unloading Jay Bell,
Carlos Garcia, Charlie Hayes, Jeff King and Orlando Merced, the
core of their Opening Day lineup in '96.
When asked about moving from the robust Rangers to the pitiful
Pirates, Elster appears to revel in his predicament, quoting his
favorite line from another movie, The Freshman: "There's a kind
of freedom in being completely screwed."
Pittsburgh general manager Cam Bonifay had to sign Elster
because Bell's departure left the organization without a
major-league-caliber shortstop. "We'd love to see Kevin put up
offensive numbers like he did last year, but we needed him for
his defense," Bonifay says. "With our young pitching staff we
wanted to have a solid defensive presence up the middle so the
pitchers wouldn't get discouraged."
Indeed, Elster is a slick fielder who set a record by playing 88
straight games at shortstop without an error in '89, a mark
broken by Cal Ripken Jr. But Pirates fans wonder if a defensive
stalwart could have come cheaper than Elster, whose price tag
was $1.65 million. Why spend all that cash on a career .228
hitter coming off his career year? The answer may lie in what
these callow Pirates can learn from Elster, a guy who has played
with nine organizations and who, at age 32, is more than three
years older than any other player on the team.
"I see my role here as the rock, the guy all these young guys
can lean on in the good times and bad," Elster says. "I want to
set a good example. Heck, I'm already a good example. When
you've missed as many games as I have in my career, you really
appreciate any day that you can play nine innings."
B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER KEVIN ELSTER Rebirth of a Career
CF Jermaine Allensworth
Hit .330 at Triple A Calgary to earn the shot
C Jason Kendall
First Pirates rookie to make All-Star team
LF Al Martin
The organization's only player signed beyond this season
1B Mark Johnson
Has hit 26 homers in 564 major league at bats
SS Kevin Elster
A ninth-place hitter in Texas, batting fifth in Pittsburgh
3B Joe Randa
Getting full-time look after coming over in trade with K.C.
RF Midre Cummings
Perennial prospect hasn't hit higher than .244 in majors
2B Tony Womack
Trouble: Rafael Belliard power without the glove
Ace Jon Lieber
7-2, 3.91 ERA in 15 starts after leaving bullpen
Closer John Ericks
8 for 10 in save situations following switch to pen
Gene Lamont is the third manager the Pirates have had in 20
years, following Chuck Tanner (1977 to '85) and Jim Leyland
(1986 to '96). Since the start of the '77 season, there have
been 216 managerial changes in the majors, an average of 7.7 per
club. Excluding '93 expansion teams Colorado and Florida, the
clubs with the fewest were: Dodgers, 1; Tigers, Twins and Blue
Jays, 4. The teams with the most were: Yankees, 19; Cubs, 15;
and Angels, 13.
STAT FACTS BY ELIAS SPORTS BUREAU