Eckstein Makes the Rounds
Saturday, March 17, 2007
JUPITER, Fla. -- When was it, exactly, when David Eckstein jumped the shark? Was it the appearance on Jay Leno just three days after being named most valuable player of the World Series, or on Carson Daly a few weeks later, or perhaps his cameo on the game show "1 vs. 100"? Was it the publication of a new edition of his children's book, "Have Heart," with an updated chapter about the World Series? Or perhaps when President Bush, in greeting the champion St. Louis Cardinals at the White House, professed a feeling of kinship with the undersized shortstop, saying, "Listen, David, I've made a career out of people underestimating me"?
No, the true shark-leap -- the point at which Eckstein's Zeligesque offseason of multimedia ubiquity reached the point of utter absurdity -- undoubtedly came on Feb. 11, at the very moment he entered the wrestling ring at TNA Wrestling's "Against All Odds" pay-per-view event (where he was supposed to have been merely a cornerman), and smashed a real, live professional wrestler over the head with a metal folding chair. A wrestler who, we might add, had 12 inches and 110 pounds on the 5-foot-7, 165-pound Eckstein.
"Spring training is almost here," Eckstein boasted in a "news" update on the TNA Wrestling Web site after his mighty swing led Team Eckstein to a win in the tag-team event, "and I just needed a little extra batting practice."
At least to the pop-culture policemen of the Cardinals' clubhouse, that was the episode that pushed Eckstein over the edge. "Apparently, he was out there smashing chairs and stuff," Cardinals infielder Aaron Miles said. "We've got people out there looking for a tape of this thing. If you come across one, let me know."
It was almost as if Eckstein needed to report to spring training, with its early-morning workouts and long bus rides, to finally relax. Such was the whirlwind nature of his offseason, as America's love affair with the cuddliest little guy/superstar in baseball, sparked by Eckstein's late-October heroics against the Detroit Tigers, carried him along for four heady months.
"It was tremendous," Eckstein said one afternoon this week. "Winning the World Series was the ultimate, and on top of it I got the opportunity to do a lot of things that normal people like myself don't normally get to do. I enjoyed it a lot. I treated it like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
If Eckstein found it hard to say "no" to any TV appearance, book-signing tour or wrestling smackdown, it is understandable. He has spent what seems like an entire lifetime trying to prove his credentials in baseball, from his walk-on days at the University of Florida, to his four years in the minor leagues to his unceremonious dumping by the Anaheim Angels in 2004. If everyone suddenly wanted to treat him like a star, by all means, he was not going to stop them.
While baseball insiders and aficionados have long admired Eckstein's gutsy, scrappy style of play, the 2006 World Series, when Eckstein hit .364 and drove in four runs, was definitive proof of Eckstein's pure talent. After six big league seasons, two all-star appearances and a pair of World Series rings as a starting shortstop and leadoff man -- one for Anaheim, one for St. Louis -- he can no longer be considered an overachiever. He is simply that good.
"If anyone thinks he doesn't have any talent, they're just not watching," Miles said. "He's one of the best skill players in the game."
But Eckstein's play on the field is only half of his appeal. The rest stems from his genuineness and his aw-shucks modesty. He sprinkles his conversation with oh-my-goshes. He shrugs off his World Series MVP award as merely the product of "three good games." And on the night the Cardinals clinched the title, when he was handed the keys to his MVP grand prize -- a special edition 2007 Corvette Z06 -- he turned and handed them to his brother, Rick.
Meantime, David Eckstein showed up for work at the Cardinals' spring training site in his old Toyota Avalon.
The 'Vette? "It's unbelievable -- 505 horsepower," said Rick Eckstein, a former coach in the Washington Nationals' farm system who now works in the Cardinals organization. "It's the only car in the history of the Daytona 500 that did not have to be modified to be the pace car. It's literally a race machine."
Most of what Eckstein did this winter was fluff -- silly banter with TV hosts, ridiculous dialogue inside a wrestling ring -- with the exception of the book. Of that, Eckstein is most proud. "Have Heart" details the Eckstein family's battle with kidney illness -- four members of David's immediate family have required transplants, and there are discouraging signs already for two young nephews -- and emphasizes the importance of persevering in the face of adversity.
"I just want kids to know," Eckstein said, "that if you work hard you can accomplish anything."
The book, in fact, became the unlikely trigger for the wrestling-ring melee in Orlando, when the opposing Team Pierzynski -- yes, that would be Chicago White Sox catcher/instigator A.J. Pierzynski -- held a copy of "Have Heart" up to the cameras and began ripping pages from it in a quite disagreeable fashion.
"That's when me and my brother decided we had to start taking care of some business," Eckstein said.
And, well, one thing led to another, and before long the MVP of the World Series was being held upside down by his ankles. It was a disadvantageous position with which -- metaphorically, of course -- Eckstein had plenty of experience. And what he did next, of course, would be familiar to anyone who knows him.
He struggled to get back to his feet, grabbed an instrument of destruction and took a mighty swing. And everyone went home happy, because once again the good guys had won.