Basketball has the gym rat, that unmistakable genus of devoted
player indigenous to hot, sweaty gyms no matter the hour or size
of audience (none being just fine). Baseball had no equivalent
appellation, at least not until a stoic North Dakotan came
along. This species spends more than six hours a day at the
ballpark before the game even begins, has no interest in
diversions during the season, has a deep appreciation of
baseball history that is obvious each time he calls his
chocolate-colored Labrador, and might break one of the oldest
and most important individual records in baseball and still go
home angry to his ice-fishing hole if it doesn't help his team
get into the postseason.
"An Erstad," Anaheim Angels bench coach Joe Maddon says.
"Webster should list it right next to gym rat. An Erstad. That's
what it is in baseball."
Technically speaking that would be a Darin Charles Erstad, the
Angels leftfielder with the dedication to his vocation that
would shame a Trappist monk. A self-confessed creature of habit,
he typically arrives at the ballpark at 12:30 p.m. for a 7
o'clock game, leaving him plenty of time for his rituals:
hitting balls off a tee ("Anywhere from 30 seconds to a half
hour, just until my swing is right," he says), studying
videotape, taping the knobs of his bats and playing cards. "If
it weren't for me and the dog," says his wife, Sarah, Darin's
sweetheart from Jamestown (N.Dak.) High, "I'm convinced he'd
spend his off days in front of the television watching ball
Says Erstad, "During the season I really don't do anything else
but play baseball. I've never wanted to get away from baseball
for a break. Why would I want to get away from it? I love the
game. I always have. There's nothing else I'd rather do."
Erstad, 26, and in his fourth full big league season, is so old
school that he named his 18-month-old Lab Hank in honor of Hank
Greenberg, the Hall of Fame first baseman, because he figured a
large dog deserved the name of a tough, old-time slugger. Now
Erstad is invoking the name of a first baseman from even deeper
in baseball history: George Sisler of the St. Louis Browns, who
in 1920 pounded out 257 hits, a record that hasn't just stood
for 80 years but also has rarely been challenged. The top 10 hit
totals all occurred between 1911 and 1930. No one in 70 years
has come within 16 hits of Sisler's record, not even with the
advantage of eight extra games since the schedule was expanded
to 162 beginning in 1961.
In an era in which the home run and self-promotion are the siren
calls of stardom, Erstad--a welcome anachronism--is the right man
to challenge Sisler. On Sunday, after going 1 for 3 in Anaheim's
5-0 loss to the Oakland A's at Network Associates Coliseum, he
had smacked 161 hits in the Angels' 99 games. Sisler had 161
after 99 games with the Browns. Projected over the remainder of
the season, Erstad is on pace to finish with 263. "It's very
possible [he'll break the record]," says Angels first baseman Mo
Vaughn. "I played [in Boston] with Nomar Garciaparra and I played
with Wade Boggs, and I've never seen anybody for 3 1/2 months
consistently rain line drives all over the field the way Darin
"If anybody's going to do it, he'd be the guy," says Cardinals
centerfielder Jim Edmonds, Erstad's former teammate in Anaheim.
"Everybody else has days when we say, 'I'm tired. If I can just
get through this game, I'll go hard tomorrow.' He never has a
day like that." So intense is Erstad that teammates know not to
shag balls in leftfield during batting practice without asking
his permission. "It's my position," he says. Explaining his
carpe diem philosophy, he says, "Any game could be my last, and
any at bat could be my last. I'd hate to think it ended without
me giving my best effort." He is more oblique when asked about
catching Sisler. "Anything is possible," is about as much as he
allows. "It won't have much meaning if we don't win [a playoff
spot]." The Angels ended the week in third place in the American
League West, five games behind the first-place Seattle Mariners
and, in the wild-card race, one game behind Oakland.
Sisler set the record at age 27 for a fourth-place Browns team
that finished 76-77. A lefty like Erstad, Sisler was a deft
fielder with good speed who, despite the implications of his
record, was much more dangerous than a mere singles hitter.
Playing every inning of that season, Sisler won the batting
title (.407) and finished second to Babe Ruth in home runs (19)
and RBIs (122). Sisler capped his season by pitching a scoreless
ninth inning of the last game.
Erstad, hitting .381 at week's end, is similarly
multidimensional. He had an assist on July 13 while playing
shortstop in an emergency five-man infield alignment. He has
already tied his career high with 19 home runs and plays either
left or centerfield with nonstop pluck. Erstad is a good
candidate to challenge the hits record because he bats leadoff
for a power-packed lineup (affording him plenty of at bats) and
is an aggressive hitter who draws walks only occasionally (42 at
week's end). However, he is an unlikely challenger because of
how he played last year, when he batted only .253. The harder he
tried, the worse he hit--and the worse he hit, the more Sarah
made sure Hank met him at the front door before she did. "I'd
wait to see how he greeted Hank," Sarah says with a laugh. "I
could tell by his voice if I should leave him alone for a while.
This year I think he's done a much better job of letting things
Says Maddon, "Darin's the kind of guy who believes in a work
ethic: You have to suffer for success. Last year he suffered."
"I grew up," is how Erstad puts it. He also spent last winter
retooling his swing. After learning that he had grounded out to
first or second base 130 times last season, Erstad determined
that he had been "rolling over" his hands, causing him to pull
outside pitches weakly. This season he's turning those pitches
into line drives to left and centerfields. "He seems even more
aggressive this year," Oakland righthander Tim Hudson says.
"He's like Nomar. Those guys, you almost have to pitch them like
it's 0 and 2. They make hard contact almost all the time. You
hope you limit them to a single and move on."
Erstad's suffering ended as soon as this season began. He banged
out 14 hits in his first five games. At week's end he had hits
in 84 of the 98 games in which he had played. (In '20 Sisler
took 24 0-fers.) Only once had he gone hitless in back-to-back
games. (Sisler did so twice.)
The summer that he was seven, Erstad rode in the backseat of the
family Oldsmobile from North Dakota to Massachusetts to visit
relatives. His father, Chuck, an avid baseball fan, made sure to
stop along the way at old Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington,
Minn., Wrigley Field, Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park and the Hall
of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. A love for baseball was stoked.
"It's funny, I haven't thought about that trip in years,
probably since we took it," Erstad said as he slowly recalled
its details before the game last Saturday. A smile broke bright
as dawn over his face.
Nineteen years later, still fueled by a child's enthusiasm, he
is off on another journey, baseball history again awaiting him.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECK