Dodgers shortstop Kevin Elster has returned, not only from the
darkest basement of baseball oblivion but also from the deck of
his suburban Las Vegas pool, where he hung out for nearly a year.
After going without a job in the 1999 season, he has opened the
new millennium doing full-time work. Through Sunday the
35-year-old Elster, a career .228 hitter coming into this season,
was batting .300 with five home runs. He's a man on a mission,
focused on a lifelong goal--no, not big league success. Elster
wants to open a bar.
He already has the location (downtown Vegas) picked out. The
name, too. Hootie ("A word that can mean anything to anyone,"
says Elster) will be that rare Vegas joint without slots or a
$4.95 prime rib special. "The city needs a place where people can
play live music and just jam," says Elster, an amateur drummer.
Elster hopes to open Hootie within two years. "My place," he
says, "is going to be very different."
Consider the source. Elster is a traditional 12-year major
leaguer like roast pork is a traditional bar mitzvah entree. When
he joined the Mets as a rookie in 1986, he was a highly touted,
though weak-hitting, defensive replacement. He spent all or part
of nine seasons in New York (seven with the Mets, two with the
Yankees), sometimes as a regular, often battling injuries, never
finishing above .241 or with more than 10 home runs. After the
'95 season, in which he hit .186 in 36 games with the Yankees and
the Phillies, he filed for free agency, apparently ending a
career that never really was.
Nonetheless, in 1996 the Rangers invited Elster to spring
training and made him into a starter when Benji Gil was sidelined
with a bad back. Against all logic, he finished with 24 home runs
and 99 RBIs, Texas records for a shortstop. "As I got older, I
gained strength," he says, "but it's knowledge, too. You learn
how to play."
Elster failed to sustain the magic--he had only 15 homers and 62
RBIs in the two subsequent seasons with the Pirates and the
Rangers. Age and injury also took away his range, and Elster,
with few playing opportunities but financially secure, retired.
"Baseball is a job to me, not an obsession," he says. "I just
felt like staying home, sitting by the pool and not playing
baseball. I was living a normal life."
Last January, Elster decided to give baseball one more try. His
brother-agent, Patrick, called Dodgers general manager Kevin
Malone, who signed Elster to a nonguaranteed $300,000 contract
and invited him to spring training. He beat out Alex Cora as Los
Angeles's regular shortstop. On April 11 Elster hit three home
runs and drove in four runs in a 6-5 Dodgers win over the Giants.
He added two more homers and six RBIs in two games last weekend
against the Reds. His range is still limited, but L.A. manager
Davey Johnson says that with Elster batting eighth, nobody can
pitch around Todd Hundley and Adrian Beltre, the sixth and
"Maybe if this season works out, I'd be willing to extend my
career," says Elster. "I'm really enjoying myself. Besides, the
money could help with my bar."
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK