Darin Erstad is baseball’s equivalent of a gym rat—there is rarely a time when he isn’t doing something to improve his game. Though he once toyed with the idea of pursing a career in the NFL, baseball has always been his all-consuming passion. Darin loves nothing more than taking 100 hacks in the cage or flagging down 100 fungoes, and no one in the majors has a deeper appreciation for the sport’s history and tradition. He believes the best way to honor the game is to go all-out, all the time. This is his story…

GROWING UP

Darin Charles Erstad was born on June 4, 1974 in Jamestown, North Dakota. (Click here for a complete listing of today's sports birthdays.) It wasn't exactly the kind of place you’d expect to find a baseball star in the making. Jamestown, situated in the 188-mile void between Bismarck and Fargo, is home to just 16,000 people. Its high school still does not have a baseball team. As for the state of North Dakota, it has produced a dozen big leaguers—most notably Roger Maris.

Darin was the second of Chuck and Dorothy Erstad’s three children. Heidi arrived first. Bryan came seven years after Darin. Chuck worked as a branch manager for Farmers Union Insurance. Proud descendants of a farming heritage, the family was closeknit, devout and caring. Every Sunday they attended the Trinity Lutheran Church, where Dorothy served as the Director of Christian Education.

Despite the chilly North Dakota climate, Darin was raised to love baseball. As a toddler, he slugged wiffle balls with a big red plastic bat. His instincts for the game were likely passed on to him from his father. Chuck, a member of the North Dakota Baseball Hall of Fame, was a fine player in his youth and starred in adult softball leagues as he got older. From the time Darin was four, Dorothy took him to watch his father’s games. It didn’t take long for dreams of a career in the majors to begin dancing in the kid’s head.

Darin became a devoted student of the game. He rooted for the Minnesota Twins and worshiped Rod Carew. Darin took his first trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame when he was in first grade. He also made regular pilgrimages to the Roger Maris Museum in Fargo.

As Darin grew older, he developed into a talented athlete. Baseball was his greatest passion, but he also was a standout in football, hockey and track. He owed much of his success to his intense desire to win—or, more accurately, his hatred of losing. Darin was an insane competitor in everything he tried. In the early days, defeats were usually accompanied by crying fits and temper tantrums.

By the time Darin reached his teens, he had become completely focused on sports. When he entered Jamestown High School, he abandoned almost all thoughts of a social life. Every afternoon was spent practicing with a team or on his own. On the ice, Darin was known for his ferocious slap shot. In his senior season at Jamestown, he scored 36 goals and assisted on 24 others in 26 games. On the football field, Darin was North Dakota’s top schoolboy kicker and punter. He once booted a school-record 50-yard field goal. In track, he was the state champion in 110- and 300-meter hurdles.


 

 


Darin’s best sport was baseball. A classic five-tool player, he had a smooth swing, chased down everything in the outfield, and was a superb pitcher.Since his high school didn’t have a baseball team, Darin packed all his diamond work into North Dakota’s brief summers. He starred for the Jamestown Eagles in American Legion ball, playing as many as 70 games between the end of school and Labor Day.

During his amateur career, Darin faced surprisingly stiff competition. As a 15-year-old in 1989, he and the Eagles got mowed down by Rick Helling, another product of North Dakota. Helling struck out 18 in the game, fanning everyone in the Jamestown lineup except Darin.

ON THE RISE

Darin’s best year in American Legion came in 1992. He batted .492 with 18 home runs and 86 RBIs—and also posted a 10-2 record and 2.18 ERA on the mound. As soon as the season ended, Darin headed for the University of Nebraska. Months earlier, the New York Mets had selected him in the 13th round of the draft, but Darin felt he wasn’t ready for the majors and opted instead to play college ball in Lincoln.

Nebraska was one of just a handful of big-time programs interested in Darin. Not that he didn’t have the talent to start for a top-notch Division I school—most coaches simply had never seen him play. That list included Cornhuskers head coach John Sanders. He offered Darin a partial scholarship based purely on stories he had heard about the North Dakota phenom. Darin was grateful for the opportunity.

For Darin, college life was a major adjustment. Being away from home for the first time was tough enough. Nebraska’s bustling campus made things ever harder. The school, which boasted a weekday population of 25,000, swelled to nearly four times that size on the Saturdays that the Cornhuskers hosted a football game. For a naive freshman from the Peace Garden State, this was an eye-opening experience.

Darin discovered the best way to deal with the culture shock was to find an environment in which he felt comfortable. Where else but the gym? He sequestered himself in Nebraska’s state-of-the-art training facilities, working out religiously in preparation for his first baseball season in the Big Eight Conference. On the odd times that Darin didn’t have a bat in his hands, he could usually be found in the library.

For coach Sanders, Darin was a dream come true. During his freshman season, Darin did a little of everything for the Cornhuskers, hitting .339 with 10 homers, 54 RBIs and 14 stolen bases. He was named Honorable Mention All-Big Eight, and Baseball America included him on its list of Top 25 Freshman. He was also recognized for his performance in the classroom, receiving Academic All-Big Eight honors.

Darin, however, played third banana to Marc Sagmoen, who ran away with the conference batting title, and pitcher-outfielder Troy Brohawn, who went 13-0 and batted .329. The Huskers finished the year at 35-23.

After his breakout frosh campaign, Darin traveled east to play for the Falmouth Commodores in the Cape Cod League, the summer proving ground for the country’s top amateur talent. Players in the CCL are required to use wood bats, mostly for the benefit of pro scouts. In the summer of 1993, Georgia Tech studs Nomar Garciaparra and Jason Varitek were the big names in town, along with Clemson hurler Andy Taulbee and Matt Morris of Seton Hall. Darin more than held his own, finishing the summer with a .302 average. He was named to the CCL All-Star team.

Darin arrived back in Lincoln brimming with confidence. He opened his second season hitting a ton. Then his athletic career then took an unexpected turn. Though he hadn’t kicked competitively since high school, Darin got a chance to return to the football field after Tom Osborne watched a tape of him submitted by some friends. The legendary Nebraska coach was impressed and plied Darin with the offer of a partial scholarship. When spring football began, he split time between baseball and football, which didn’t figure to be a problem for the nose-to-the-grindstone sophomore.

Darin loved being back on the gridiron. Caught up in the fun of playing for the nationally ranked Cornhuskers, he began to see his batting average drop. Though he was voted First Team All-Big Eight, he hit just.317. Nebraska went 32-28, as Brohawn and other key players suffered through poor seasons. The bright side was that Darin won the job as Osborne’s punter and long-range placekicker going into fall of 1994.

That summer Darin returned to Falmouth, where he batted .340 and was named the CCL’s top player. He also visited the Baseball Hall of Fame again. Immersed in the history and tradition of the game, Darin decided then and there the coming season of football would be his first and last. His two years of baseball at Nebraska had proven that he had a legitimate shot at reaching the majors.

As it turned out, Darin’s timing was perfect. The 1994 Cornhuskers were a powerhouse. Tommie Frazier and Lawrence Phillips paced the offense, running behind a huge line that included Zach Wiegert and Brenden Stai. The leaders on defense were All-Americans Grant Wistrom and Jared Tomich. Nebraska went 12-0 during the regular season, outscoring its opponents 435 to 145. Darin chipped in on special teams, averaging 42.6 yards per punt, the 14th best mark in the country.


Rick Helling, 1992 Bowman
 


Winners of the Big Eight, the Cornhuskers squared off against Miami in the Orange Bowl with the national title on the line. Nebraska won 24-17, on the strength of two second-half touchdowns by an unlikely hero, fullback Corey Schlesinger. The victory gave Osborne the first title of his career and the school its first since 1972. Darin had such a good year as a punter that he was offered a full scholarship. He stuck to his plan and turned it down.

Going into the spring of 1995, Darin suspected that this would be his final year of college baseball. Pro scouts had been on his trail for a couple of years, and it was a good bet that he would be a first-round choice in the June draft. Ironically, Darin’s lone year of football helped improve his stock. His staunch work ethic was reinforced by Osborne’s no-nonsense approach to practice and games. He also got a crash course in dealing with pressure, often taking the field with more people watching from the stands and on television than he would ever encounter in baseball.

Darin started his junior campaign on a tear and never stopped hitting. He was at his best against the conference’s top team, Oklahoma. In five games with the first-place Sooners, he batted .429 and blasted three home runs. Oklahoma lefty Mark Redman—with whom Darin would share conference Player of the Year honors—was among his favorite whipping boys. The Huskers finished 35-23, and Darin led the Big Eight with a .410 average. He was the only batter in the conference to surpass 100 hits, and also led the league with seven triples. Named a First Team All-American by Collegiate Baseball, Darin set career highs with 19 homers and 76 RBIs.

At 6-2 and 200 pounds, Darin was just about everything a big-league team could want in a centerfielder. He hit for average and power, played fearless, mistake-free defense, had a strong throwing arm, and used his speed to unnerve opposing hurlers. That package of skills was difficult for anyone to pass up, even the pitching-starved California Angels, owners of the top pick in the draft. In the middle of a pennant race, the Angels had a decision to make. The club could either select Erstad and wait for him to develop, or go after recent Cuban defector Ariel Prieto, a seasoned arm who might help out immediately. California’s scouting director Bob Fontaine ended the conversation almost before it began. Sold on Darin’s potential, he directed the team to take the 21-year-old.

Darin made the pick look like a smart one almost immediately. After signing a deal worth $1.725 million in guaranteed money—at the time the richest contract in draft history)—he tore up the Class-A California League. In only 113 at-bats with the Lake Elsinore Storm, he batted .363 with five homers and 24 RBIs.

Darin’s scintillating first season put him on the fast track with the Angels. California promoted him to the Vancouver Canadians of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League to start the 1996 campaign. He quickly mastered the pitching there, and by June, his average stood at .305. When Angels centerfielder Jim Edmonds got hurt, Darin was called up to the big club.

Initially, AL hurlers took advantage of Darin's inexperience. He went hitless in his first 10 at-bats, but soon settled in. He collected his first hit on June 16 against the Toronto Blue Jays, then slammed his first home run a day later off Alex Fernandez of the Chicago White Sox.

Still, when Edmonds was activated from the disabled list, the Angels sent Darin back to Vancouver. The rookie was none too pleased about the demotion. He returned to the majors in September and delivered a message to the California front office with his hardnosed play and all-out hustle. For the year with the Angels, he batted .284 in 208 at-bats, including an inside-the-park home run. Baseball America named him the PCL’s No. 7 prospect.

In a half-season with the Angels (who became known as Anaheim before the 1997 campaign), Darin showed he belonged in the majors. The club had a logjam in the outfield, however, with Edmonds, Tim Salmon and Garret Anderson forming one of the league’s best young trios. The team chose a slightly unorthodox solution. Gambling that Darin could adapt quickly to a new position, they moved him to first base and traded J.T. Snow up the coast to the San Francisco Giants for pitching.


Tom Osborne, 1995 Sports Illustrated
 


Though he had never taken a grounder in his life, Darin was happy with the switch because it meant he would be an everyday player. That was the upside to the change. The downside? He joined a scatter-armed infield featuring the likes of Dave Hollins, Jack Howell, Luis Alicea, Gary DiSarcina and Tony Phillips. The pitching was thin past starter Chuck Finley and closer Troy Percival, meaning the fielders would see plenty of action.

Early in the season, manager Terry Collins pushed all the right buttons, and the Angels hung with the leaders in the AL West. The team demonstrated toughness, particularly in the eighth and ninth innings of games—a quality absent in previous years. Anaheim kept its playoff hopes alive into August, winning half its games in come-from-behind fashion, but injuries eventually took their toll, and the Halos faded.

Darin was among those who went down, hurting his right shoulder late in the season. The injury ended a strong campaign. Hitting in the leadoff spot most of the year, he batted .299 with 16 home runs and 77 RBIs, and led the club with 23 stolen bases. In the field, he improved steadily after a shaky start, though his 11 errors at first were the third most at his position in the AL. In December, Darin had surgery to repair his ailing shoulder.

Like everything that happened to him, the procedure was front-page news back in North Dakota. During the baseball season, the Jamestown Sun debuted a daily piece called “Darin’s Day,” which charted the rising star’s performance. Baseball fans outside of Jamestown were taking notice, too. Darin was gaining a reputation as a throwback. He reminded many of Kirk Gibson—also a two-sport star in college—because of his raw intensity and scintillating combination of speed and power.

Darin justified those comparisons in 1998. He opened the campaign on fire, picking up a hit in each of his first 15 games. He also put together a streak of nine games with at least one extra-base hit, falling just two games shy of Jesse Barfield’s AL record. In June, Darin recorded the first five-hit game of his career. Come July, with a .313 average, 18 homers and 59 RBI, he was picked to play in the All-Star Game. Darin was inserted in left field during the fifth inning and went hitless in two at-bats.

Though Darin was looking better at first every day, he was beginning to see more action in left. The acquisition of Cecil Fielder gave the Angels a legitimate first sacker, so Darin was often in the outfield mix. Salmon, meanwhile, became the club’s full-time DH.

Darin’s hard-charging style caught up with him in August when he was placed on the disabled list with a strained left hamstring. He reinjured the leg in September and missed 10 more games. His time out of the lineup coincided with Anaheim’s second straight late-season swoon. The Angels had kept pace with Texas in the AL West until the final two weeks, when they went 4-9—including five straight losses to the Rangers. They finished second for the third time in four years.

In 133 games, Darin hit .296 with 39 doubles, 19 home runs, 82 RBIs and 20 stolen bases. One reason for his improvement was the influence of Anaheim’s batting coach Rod Carew. In spring training, Darin was so awestruck by Carew that he was hesitant to even speak to him. But once the two got to know each other, they established a terrific working relationship. Instead of trying to mold Darin into a traditional leadoff hitter, Carew encouraged him to be aggressive at the plate and utilize his extra-base potential by looking for fastballs early in the count.

Darin carried that attitude into the 1999 campaign, but the season proved disastrous for him and the team. The Angels were wildly optimistic in spring training after adding two big bats to the lineup, free agent Mo Vaughn and young sensation Troy Glaus. The team also bolstered its starting rotation with the signing of Tim Belcher, who had won 14 games for the Kansas City Royals the previous year.

Unfortunately, injuries ravaged the club. Vaughn hurt his ankle early in the campaign and never fully recovered, Belcher fractured the pinky on his pitching hand, and DiSarcina suffered a broken forearm. When Anaheim began to struggle, players quickly grew tired of Collins’s ultra-intense style. The demoralized Angels descended into the AL West cellar with a record 70-92.

Darin’s year mirrored the team’s. In the face of grand expectations, he batted only .253, his power numbers sagged, and he struck out more than 100 times. Injuries played a role in his season-long slump. Darin spent time on the DL with a strained ligament in his right knee and also nursed an aching hamstring and shoulder. Splitting time between first and left field once again also proved something of a distraction. Yet Darin made no excuses. It was a stance that earned him the admiration of teammates, fans and those within organization.

Darin arrived at spring training in 2000 determined to bounce back from his poor performance. The Angels were eager to do the same. In as manager was Mike Scioscia, whose laid-back, friendly demeanor was in sharp contrast to his predecessor Collins. Anaheim also hoped to find a new home for Edmonds, who had turned off some with his me-first attitude. Two weeks before the regular season began, the club shipped the talented outfielder to St. Louis for righthander Kent Bottenfield and infielder Adam Kennedy. The Angels believed that Bottenfield, coming off an All-Star season, would take the pressure off an emerging group starters led by Ramon Ortiz and Jarrod Washburn. Kennedy, a middle infielder with a lively bat, was a good pick-up as well.

MAKING HIS MARK

The Edmonds trade also opened center field for Darin. The organization was counting on him to return to form, and he rewarded the team’s faith by roaring out of the starting gate. Darin collected 14 hits in his first five games and ended April with a record 48 hits. In May, he won AL Player of the Week honors after batting .481 with a triple, four homers, and nine RBIs over a six-game stretch. In June, Darin twice blasted two home runs in a game.

After a trip to Atlanta for the All-Star Game in July, Darin resumed his torrid pace. He was also getting it done with the glove. His catches were regularly featured on highlight videos, and he was being penciled in for a Gold Glove at season’s end. In a game at Texas, Darin tied the major-league record for putouts by an outfielder with 12.


Troy Percival, 1997 Score
 


Though muscle spasms in his rib cage slowed him briefly in August, Darin ended the year with 240 hits (the 12th highest total in big-league history) and a .355 average. Both were team records. He also became the first Angel to collect 200 hits, score 100 runs and drive in 100 in the same season. What's more, his 100 RBIs broke Nomar Garciaparra’s mark for a leadoff hitter.

In all, Darin set personal highs in every offensive category, except doubles. With 25 home runs and 28 steals, he joined Don Baylor and Bobby Bonds as the franchise’s only members in the 25-25 club. The recipient of the Gene Autry Award as Anaheim’s MVP, Darin became the 13th Angel to win a Gold Glove and the third outfielder in team history to be honored with the Silver Slugger Award.

Despite all the personal accolades, Darin had regrets about the 2000 campaign. Anaheim climbed in the standings but finished a full nine games behind the Oakland A's and Seattle Mariners. Again the pitching faltered. Even though the Angels established a team record with 236 homers, they did no better than 82-80.

Darin would come to realize that watching the playoffs from home was the least of his worries. First, he hurt a knee during an off-season workout. When he began favoring the injury, he unknowingly altered the mechanics of his swing—a problem that would take a full year to iron out. Then a much more unsettling situation surfaced. His marriage, less than a year old, began to crumble. The strain of his impending divorce tore away at him throughout the 2001 campaign. He told no one on the team about it. The emotional baggage of the break-up and the unshakable slump sent his stats right into the toilet.

As Darin’s numbers fell, so did Anaheim’s fortunes. The Angels got surprisingly effective pitching in 2001, as Ortiz and Washburn matured into reliable starters. In the bullpen, Ben Weber and Al Levine proved valuable set-up men for Percival, who was now rated among the game’s most fearsome closers. The offense, however, struggled all year long. Vaughn sat out the entire season, Salmon slumped through a variety of injuries, and Darin battled his demons. If it hadn’t been for Glaus and Anderson, Anaheim’s season would have been a total disaster. As it was, the club hung around in the Wild Card race, but losses in 19 of their last 21 games ended any dreams of a Cinderella post-season run.

Exhausted after his mentally trying campaign, Darin headed home to Jamestown. For the first time in his career, he didn’t spend the winter working on his game. In fact, Darin didn’t touch a bat until January. Instead, he relaxed with family and friends, caught a couple of football games at Nebraska, and also flew to California for the Rose Bowl, where Miami destroyed his Cornhuskers 37-14 to capture the national championship.

Darin arrived at spring training in 2002 refreshed and ready to go. His knee was fully healed, and he had come to grips with the humiliation of his failed marriage. Scheduled to become a free agent after the season, he knew he would be the subject of trade rumors. In December, the Angels had nearly sent him to the White Sox for starter Jon Garland, outfielder Chris Singleton, and two prospects, but the team nixed the deal at the last minute. Resigned to the fact that he might soon be pulling on a new uniform, Darin chose to ignore what was happening off the field and focus on his game.


Darin Erstad, 2000 Pacific
 


The Angels were picked by many to finish last in the AL West in '02. Darin and his teammates felt they were being vastly underestimated. The front office had made several important moves in the off-season. Vaughn was shipped to New York for veteran righty Kevin Appier. Aaron Sele, another starter with big-game experience, was signed as a free agent. Along with Ortiz and Washburn, they figured to round out a balanced starting staff. On offense, muscle-bound Brad Fullmer was plucked off the Toronto roster to DH against righthanded pitching. He joined a batting order that had the potential to do real damage. Pesky shortstop David Eckstein played table-setter to 3-4-5 hitters Salmon, Anderson and Glaus. Scioscia slotted Darin in the two-hole, where he would get plenty of fat pitches to hit.

The season started badly for Anaheim. Darin suffered a concussion in mid-April, and the Angels lost 14 of their first 20. When he returned in May, the club heated up. The Halos surged to a 19-7 record during the month, with Darin hitting at a .361 clip. From there, Anaheim’s pitchers took over, stringing together one quality outing after another. By the All-Star break, the Angels were in the thick of the division race in the West.

As the season progressed, Anaheim separated itself from its main competition for the Wild Card and set its sights on Oakland and the division crown. Scioscia received a lot of credit for his team’s turnaround. He related well to his players and instilled in them a fearlessness at the plate and in the field. Darin also played an important role. Besides his clutch hitting and alley-to-alley defensive work, he set the tone with his fiery desire to win.

Darin’s leadership was even more crucial come the post-season. Anaheim finished the regular campaign at 99-63, four games behind the A’s. That meant the Angels drew the mighty Yankees in the first round of the playoffs. By virtue of its seasoned pitching staff and explosive attack, New York was the favorite in the series. When the Yanks took Game 1 on a three-run homer by Bernie Williams, it appeared that the Angels were fated to be the latest victim of the pinstripers’ legendary October magic. But Anaheim struck back a night later, outslugging the Bronx Bombers in an 8-6 victory.

Most observers expected New York to show its mettle on the road for Game 3, and right on cue the Yanks jumped out to a 6-1 lead. Once again, however, the Angels hammered Yankee pitching. Darin got the biggest hit of the night in the eighth when he lined a double off Mike Stanton to give Anaheim a one-run lead. Salmon followed moments later with a two-run homer that put the game away. Anaheim wrapped up the best-of-five series the next day with an eight-run outburst in the fifth inning. Darin had two more hits in the victory to send the Yankees back to the Bronx.

Anaheim moved onto the ALCS against the upstart Twins, who had pulled an upset of their own versus Oakland. In Game 1, Minnesota starter Joe Mays shut down the scorching Anaheim bats with an assortment of off-speed junk. Darin got the team going in Game 2 with a home run in the opening frame. With the bullpen logging nearly four innings of shutout ball, the Halos won 6-3. When they returned home, they dominated Minnesota. Washburn was masterful for seven innings in Game 3, and then Glaus and the bullpen took over to deliver a 2-1 victory.

The final two games of the best-of-seven series turned into blowouts. The Angels broke open the first contest with seven runs in their last two at-bats. A day later, they exploded for 10 runs in the seventh. Kennedy led the charge with three homers and five RBIs. For the series, Darin hit .364, scored three runs, and drove home three.

The 2002 World Series was a tough one to call. Both the Angels and Giants had exceptional hitting and lights-out closers, but no one could say with any degree of certainty how the starters and middle relievers would do. With four games slated for Anaheim, the Angels just wanted to get the series back home, where they could play it out on in front of noisy fans, the ghost of Gene Autry and the insipid rally monkey.

The Giants took Game 1 by a score of 4-3, but Anaheim knotted the series with a wild 11-10 victory in Game 2. After the series moved to PacBell, the Angels ensured a return to Edison Field with a 10-4 rout in Game 3. In fact, it looked as if they were ready to roll right over the Giants. Darin had three hits in the game to pace the Halo attack.

The Giants proved their mettle in the next two contests, shutting down the Angel offense and regaining the series lead. Darin got just one hit in the pair of losses.The teams traveled south for Game 6, where San Francisco’s Russ Ortiz continued the Giants’ mastery of the Angel hitters. Heading into the bottom of the seventh, Anaheim was staring down the barrel of a 5-0 deficit.

The Angels chased Ortiz in the seventh and got back in the game on a three-run shot by Scott Spiezio off Felix Rodriguez. Darin could feel the confidence returning to the team. He was locked in as he waited on deck for a chance to break the game open. Eckstein, however, made the final out of the inning.

To lead off the eighth, Darin guessed correctly on a Tim Worrell changeup and drilled the 2-0 offering into the right field bleachers to make it 5-4. The rally monkey was hopping as the Angels scored twice more on a Glaus double off Robb Nen. Percival mopped up in the ninth to give the Angels a 6-5 win that ranked among the greatest World Series comebacks of all time.

Game 7 was also decided by a double. This one came in the third inning off the bat of Anderson, who lined a Livan Hernandez mistake into the right field corner with the bases jammed. Darin was one of three Angel runners to score on the two-bagger. Later in the game, he made a great diving grab in short left-center. Anaheim’s no-name pitchers got the club through eight innings with a 4-1 advantage, and Percival came on to seal the deal. The Giants never quit, putting two runners aboard for Kenny Lofton, who just got under a 95 mph heater and lifted it to right-center field.

Darin drifted under Lofton’s fly and waved off Alex Ochoa, who was closing on the ball, too. The sound it made as it settled into Darin's glove was the sweetest he'd ever heard. An instant later the ballpark erupted in celebration. After years of disappointment, the Angels were champions.


Troy Glaus, 2001 Upper Deck Vintage
 


Anyone wondering whether Darin was a big-time player got their answer in the 2002 post-season. He hit in 15 of 16 games and did a textbook job in the two-hole, extending rallies and setting the table for the middle of the lineup. Darin also played flawless defense and was marvelous on the basepaths. In a series that could have turned on a hundred little things, he was a big contributor to Anaheim’s first World Series title.

Give Darin credit for something else. With free agency within sniffing range and a major payday on the horizon, he chose instead to re-up with the Angels for a relatively modest $32 million over four years. To a man, every Angel claimed they knew their team had the makings of a champion in 2002. But only Darin put his money where is mouth was.

Next Darin discovered the challenges of defending a championship. He started 2003 like a house afire, but his take-no-prisoners style caught up with him again and a gimpy hamstring landed him on the DL. Without the locomotive that pulls their train, the Angels started to derail. Then came more injuries—Glaus missed almost half the year with a bad rotator cuff, Washburn battled a sore shoulder, Fullmer blew out his knee, and catcher Bengie Molina broke his wrist.

Darin tried to come back during the summer and played so hard he broke two knee braces. But the hamstring got progressively worse and he went back on the DL. The Angels finished out of the running. Darin ended up hitting a meager .252 in only 67 games.

The Angels did what many expected to start the 2004 season, moving Darin from center field to first base. The change opened another outfield spot, making room for superstar Vladimir Guerrero and Jose Guillen. Though Anaheim's pitching remained somewhat of a question, the team looked like a contender again in the AL West with a more potent attack.

The Angels lit up the Mariners in the first series of the season and went on to a league-best 21-10 record to start the year. But the club was stung by bad news in May when Darin reinjured his right hamstring trying to score from second on a single.

After a stint on the DL, Darin logged a brief rehab assignment in Triple-A Salt Lake. He returned to the Anaheim lineup in mid-June against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Angels needed him desperately, having lost seven of their last 10. Darin immediately sparked a victory, plating the go-ahead run in the ninth inning after a leadoff single.

With Darin back with the team, the Angels resumed their battle against the Rangers and A's for first in the division. Anaheim suffered another setback with the loss of Glaus to injury, but Guerrero was performing like an MVP and Sean Figgins filled in admirably at third. Darin also contributed, though not at full strength. In late June, he dislocated the third knuckle on his middle finger on a check swing. Ever resilient, Darin missed just one game. In his first appearance after the injury, he collected three hits, including a three-run home run, in a 13-0 rout of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Darin played his best baseball during July and August, when he batted .337 and .367, respectively. While his production dropped a bit in September, his everyday presence helped the Angels overcome the A's for the division crown. Anaheim actually swept Oakland on the season's last weekend to seal the deal. Darin finished with a .295 batting average, seven homers and 69 RBIs.

In the first round, the Angels faced the Red Sox, who had ended their season on fire. Boston set the tone in Game 1, scoring seven runs in the fourth inning on the way to a 9-3 victory. Darin was the bright spot, with three hits in four at-bats. The series lasted only two more games, as the Red Sox rolled . Anaheim struck fear into the hearts of the Fenway faithful in Game 3 bymounting a late-game rally. The Sox, however, held on and won in extra innings. Darin wound up hitting .500 for the series with two runs and two RBIs.

Darren stayed injury-free in 2005, and once again the Angels finished atop the AL West. He led the team with 166 hits and was second with 86 runs scored. He also contributed 10 stolen bases to LA’s league-best 161 swipes. The Angels won most of their games with good pitching, courtesy of 21-game winner Bartolo Colon, hard-throwing John Lackey, and Francisco Rodriguez, who topped the AL with 45 saves as the club's full-time closer.

Just as they had in 2002, the Angels outslugged the Yankees in the Division Series and won in five games. Darin hit an even .300 and drove in the final run of the series for the Angels in their Game 5 victory. The Angels did not fare as well in the ALCS against the White Sox, who outpitched them in five tightly played games. Darin had a poor series, as did many Angel hitters. The team batted just .175 overall.

Darin hobbled through the 2006 season on a bad ankle, playing just 40 games. It didn't help that the Angels asked him to play most of his games in the outfield. He signed a free agent deal with the White Sox in 2007 and seemed back to his old self early in the year. Darin was hitting leadoff and playing "Ozzie-ball" until he was slowed by a recurrent ankle problem and later a dicey hamstring. He finished the year with a disappointing .248 average and was released by Chicago.

A player with Darin's talent and intensity doesn't stay on the market for long. He was snapped up by the Houston Astros, who are known for giving plenty of playing time to their bench players. Darin will back up Lance Berkman at first, Carlos Lee in left, Hunter Pence in right and perhaps even Michael Bourn in center. With Craig Biggio retired, he will become an important veteran leader on a club in transition. Of course, that's what many experts said of the Angels in 2002, and look what Darin did for that club.

DARIN THE PLAYER


Darin Erstad: 2002 Vintage
 


Despite his injury problems, Darin remains a bona fide five-tool player. While he’ll never be a home run champion, he has the power to hit the ball out of any stadium. And when he’s hot, there’s not a tougher out in baseball. His speed is another weapon, although his ankle and hamstring woes may prevent him from being a serious base-stealing threat again.

Darin’s leadership skills are the most underrated part of his game. His teammates like him personally and respect him immensely. Opponents never count out his teams. Darin is a major reason why the Angels produced so many comeback victories during his career.

Darin’s “Achilles heel” is his refusal to accept anything less than his full-out best. That approach has led to an endless assortment of bumps, bruises, and more serious injuries that annually rob him of production. Indeed, Darin has introduced himself to far too many outfield walls, and he never thinks twice about laying out for a ball, regardless of the game situation or surface he’s playing on.

The spot duty Darin will see in Houston could be the key to keeping him productive in his 30s. He certainly has no plans to let up or slow down.

 


Darin Erstad, 1995 Baseball America

 

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