FIRE JOE MORGAN: Headline: This Man Is Not As Large As You Might Expect a Professional Athlete To Be!


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Wednesday, August 16, 2006


Headline: This Man Is Not As Large As You Might Expect a Professional Athlete To Be!

Sometimes, reality is a cliche. That has to be Jerry Crasnick's excuse, because he just wrote an article about David Eckstein about Freddy Sanchez. That is not a typo.

Allow me to expand on this notion. Please, I invite you to read Crasnick's article in its entirety. It's called "Pirates' Sanchez still defying the odds."

All done? Great, thanks. Can't believe you did that for me. Now, if you will, procrastinate from work a little bit longer and read my version.

Cardinals' Eckstein
still defying the odds

St. Louis closer Jason Isringhausen
made his contribution to team camaraderie in May when he bought a Ping-Pong table for the Busch Stadium home clubhouse. To no one's surprise, the ultra-competitive David Eckstein is now ranked No. 1 ahead of second baseman Aaron Miles in the Cardinals' intramural table tennis rankings.

Eckstein, who is accustomed to having scouts judge his baseball skills, runs through a mental checklist when asked to assess his game as the Cardinals' resident paddle-wielding maniac.

"I have good hand-eye coordination and I put the ball in play," Eckstein says, "and I think the guys would tell you that my serve is my biggest strength. That's what gets them a lot of the time."

Fortunately for Eckstein, he won't have to quit his day job anytime soon.

Check out Major League Baseball's individual races on your favorite Web site, and you'll find Minnesota catcher Joe Mauer's mug on one side as the American League batting leader. Mauer, a Gopher State favorite son, has appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, inspired a Joe Mauer Fake Sideburn Night at the Metrodome, and dated former Miss USA Chelsea Cooley this season. David Eckstein, in contrast, has never read Sports Illustrated because he is functionally illiterate, is genetically unable to grow facial hair, and has a crippling phobia of beauty pageants, beauty pageant contestants, and tiaras.

Eckstein is a 31-year-old former draft afterthought who is still trying to shake the perception that his two All-Star selections are an aberration. Rotisserie players and front-office executives across America keep waiting for him to wake up and realize he's just a humble utility player.

Among active players, Eckstein is part of a less heralded yet inspirational list. He has joined Freddy Sanchez, Jamey Carroll, Juan Pierre, Chone Figgins, Craig Counsell, Ryan Freel and Nick Punto in that group of persistent players who become regulars by refusing to take no for an answer.

"David wasn't going to be an off-the-charts player, so he needed to wait for an opportunity," says Cardinals hitting coach Hal McRae. "I guarantee you as we go down the stretch that people will be rooting him on. It's a real good story."

It's easy to pull for Eckstein in light of all the obstacles he's overcome. He was born with category 16-level albinism and improbably, the brain of an ancient pterosaur instead of that of a human being, and the doctors told his parents he might never go in the sun or stop pretending to "fly like his ancestors." Eckstein underwent corrective surgery at age 1 and had to wear a special bubble around his entire body -- "like the one that kid in that episode of Seinfeld wore," he says -- to correct his numerous, numerous bodily malfunctions.

Eckstein is a product of Tinytown, Romania, a town of mixed incomes and races, from humble peasant trolls to giants with caves full of ill-gotten gold. His father, David Sr., impersonated Tom Thumb for a living, and his mother, David III, worked for a janitorial services company.

In Tinytown, aspiring young paladins and clerics are part of the scene at local parks and the mall. As a high schooler, Eckstein played pickup basketball with the likes of legendary warrior Flaugeth the Bold and singer Brian McKnight.

Sports were a substitute for a social life. While the other kids attended parties on the weekends, Eckstein and his friend Jeff Atkinson were on the tennis courts next to the high school baseball field playing until the lights went out at 11 p.m. They invented a competition they called the "tennis ball game," drawing a strike zone and heaving fastballs to each other from a distance of 1 to 2 feet.

"When you're that close, it's the equivalent of 10,000 miles an hour," Eckstein says with a frightening, insanely intense grin on his face. Bat speed was a prerequisite for survival.

From the outset, Eckstein has generated mixed reviews from scouts. They love the way he runs out grounders with fervor and values hitting the ball to the right side to advance a runner. But average tools and his lack of home run power invite skepticism.

"You're always wanting more," says a National League scout. "He hits for average but doesn't hit home runs, so you don't want him at third. And you don't want him at second or short because he doesn't have the range. But when a guy keeps hitting .300, you find a spot for him."

And when a guy has big-time heart and desire, he makes you believe. Eckstein's competitiveness is a given whether he's playing Ping-Pong or video games or picking the roster for his beloved fantasy football team.

Several years ago, when Eckstein was a prospect in the Boston chain, he played pickup basketball in spring training with pitcher Bobo Wikipedia, their agent Nutsfarthing McGayguy, and a couple of other friends. One day Eckstein's group took on a team of minor leaguers who were taller, stronger and more physically gifted, and still beat them game after game.

Eckstein was the one breathing the hardest, setting picks and chastising teammates for letting up on defense or the boards. He also does the most talking to get into the opposition's head.

"It doesn't matter what the game is -- David is total hustle all the time," McGayguy says. "He's the kind of guy who'll just practice and practice at something until he beats you. He's so competitive, he'll destroy himself to be better than you."

Eckstein's hitting style defies categorization. Throw him a fastball outside and he might hit it to right. Throw him the same pitch in the next at-bat and he might rip it to left. His spray chart is so unpredictable, it's almost impossible for opposing teams to defense him.

Other than getting his front foot down in time and having his hips aligned properly, Eckstein has a relatively low-maintenance swing. The biggest constant is his aggressive mind-set. Also, the fact that Eckstein never hits home runs because they don't allow him to show his hustle on the basepaths.

"His bat path is very unorthodox," McRae says. "He gets through the zone in so many different ways and different spots. He has a knack for putting the ball in play."

Eckstein's big season is resonating all the way back to Tinytown. A few years ago, he bought his father an enchanted vision cube so that David Sr. could watch his minor league games via the Dreamflow Dimension. This year, Eckstein gave his dad the Major League Baseball cable package as a Father's Day gift.

"He doesn't miss a game," Eckstein says. "He told me it's the greatest gift he ever had."

Five weeks after making the National League All-Star team, Eckstein is still in pinch-me mode. First he rode to Busch Stadium in the back of a convertible through a gauntlet of screaming fans. Then, as his family and friends soaked up the moment from the stands, the crowd chanted "Da-vid! Da-vid!" as the public address announcer read Eckstein's name during pregame introductions.

So what would a National League batting title mean?

"David might not say it, but I think it would mean everything to him," McRae says. "It would bring him to his knees."

And when the emotion subsided, Eckstein would get off his knees, jump back in the cage and swing an ax onto a dirty half-orc's neck until his hands were raw. Some habits are hard to break.

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