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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Cardinals’ ‘Ecks’ files

    Ryan Caseyassistant sports editor
    Ryan Casey
    assistant sports editor

    As David Eckstein accepted his World Series MVP trophy Friday, Andy Lopez was half a country away having dinner with two recruits and their families.

    “”My wife calls me,”” Arizona’s head baseball coach recalled before practice earlier this week, “”and whenever I get a phone call – because my wife knows my schedule – so when I get a phone call from home, my first thought is, ‘Holy smokes, emergency. What’s going on?'””

    So Lopez excused himself from dinner, and took the phone call from his wife, Linda.

    “”Are you watching the World Series?”” she asked.

    “”Linda,”” he replied, “”I’m at dinner.””

    “”David just won the MVP!”” she said of Eckstein, who played for Lopez from 1995-97 when Lopez was the head coach at Florida. “”You’ve got to call him.””

    So Lopez called the shortstop, but it wasn’t Eckstein who answered. It was his brother, Rick, who also played for Lopez at Florida and spent this past season as the hitting coach for the New Orleans Zephyrs, the Triple-A affiliate of the Washington Nationals.

    Two days later, Lopez finally got ahold of his former star.

    “”He’s doing OK,”” Lopez said with a grin. “”He’s got two world championships.””

    But Eckstein, who also won a championship in 2002 with the then-Anaheim Angels, wasn’t always doing so well. In fact, he wasn’t even guaranteed to play collegiate baseball.

    After playing 11 games as a freshman in 1994 under Joe Arnold, Lopez’s predecessor at Florida, Eckstein was cut from the squad at the end of the season. So when Lopez first arrived in 1995, he was handed a team roster that didn’t include Eckstein.

    But before the 1995 season, Lopez and his staff at Florida held open tryouts to give anybody a shot to make his team, just like he continues to do every year.

    During the course of the tryout, a 5-foot-7 middle infielder caught their eye.

    “”His work ethic was just electric,”” Lopez recalled of Eckstein. “”As soon as he started getting out on the field, you kind of went, ‘Oh my gosh, he doesn’t take anything off.’ You’ll see guys, they take pitches off – some guys take innings off, some guys take multiple innings off.

    “”He showed up at the tryout, and everybody’s trying hard, everybody’s giving their best,”” Lopez added, “”but there was just something about him.””

    That something led to Eckstein becoming a Gator, starting at second base because Mark Ellis, ironically now the starting second baseman for the Oakland A’s, manned short at the time.

    “”I’ll be honest, the first couple of times I met him, I thought he was a little bit of a phony,”” Lopez said. “”And then the more he’s around, you go, ‘Holy Smokes, this is how he really is. This is really David Eckstein.’

    “”I mean, he is authentic and true and integrity and work ethic, and he is everything that’s going against the whims of society right now. He really is.””

    Even with all that heart and work ethic, Eckstein almost didn’t get a second look. Lopez said that if NCAA rules were structured the way they are now, limiting roster size and the availability of scholarships by allotting just 11.7 per team per year (scholarships can be divvied up proportionally among players), Eckstein wouldn’t have made the team that year.

    “”I couldn’t have kept him, and that’s the truth,”” Lopez said.

    But because Florida’s 40-man roster allowed him to keep more people, he was given a shot.

    “”We could keep some extra guys, and yeah, he was one of them,”” Lopez said of Eckstein, who twice led the Gators to the College World Series. “”Yeah, I’m glad we did.””

    The tryout wasn’t the final hurdle, though.

    “”The first three or four weeks,”” Lopez said, “”I kept telling my assistants, ‘Hey, make sure you’re out there (recruiting) middle infielders, because this Eckstein guy, he’s not going to be starting, he’s a backup guy. Five-foot-7? C’mon, look at him. Make sure we’re looking for infielders.’

    “”Well, that was early in the recruiting period, like around this time in the fall,”” Lopez added. “”By the time we started (Southeastern Conference) play, I was trying to figure out how I was going to get (a scholarship) for him.

    “”He was 5-foot-7, but boy – he was our leadoff hitter for three years. He was exactly what we were looking for in our leadoff spot.””

    Eckstein would finish his career at Florida, hitting .340 with 23 home runs, 135 RBIs and 93 stolen bases in 199 games. After the season, the Boston Red Sox selected him in the 19th round of the MLB Draft.

    He rose through the ranks with three consecutive seasons, hitting above .300 before settling at Triple-A Pawtucket in 2000. But once there, Eckstein began to struggle, with his average dipping below .250.

    Rick Eckstein, who was serving on Lopez’s staff at Florida at the time, took two days off and went to Pawtucket, Mass., to work with his brother.

    “”I don’t think they’re going to re-sign him,”” Rick told Lopez when he returned. “”Something’s not right. It’s just not going well.””

    Boston placed Eckstein on waivers, where he was claimed by Anaheim in August of that year. He spent the rest of the season with the Angels’ Triple-A affiliate in Edmonton, where he began to rebound, hitting .346 with three home runs and eight RBIs in just 15 games.

    He spent the next four seasons with the big-league club, including 2002’s championship squad, but in 2004 the Angels let the free agent Eckstein walk.

    “”David called, and he was really down,”” Lopez said. “”They had won the world championship there, and he was a big factor – ‘The Ecks Factor’ they called him. He was really down.””

    But when St. Louis came knocking, his mood changed immediately.

    “”He hopes to finish his career in St. Louis right now,”” Lopez said. “”It’s a haven for him, because they really acknowledge all the little things (he does) for them.””

    And just like his journey to the big leagues, once the World Series began two weeks ago, Eckstein struggled at first, but then flourished as the series wore on.

    In Games 1 and 2, he went a combined 0-for-9 with a strikeout. But with the series knotted at one and heading to St. Louis, something clicked for Eckstein, as he went 2-for-4 in Game 3 in helping the Cardinals grab a 2-1 series lead with a 5-0 win.

    Then, on Thursday in Game 4, with the Tigers leading 3-0 heading to the bottom of the third inning, Eckstein doubled home second baseman Aaron Miles to start a rally. Five innings later, his third double of the game that also scored Miles proved to be the difference in the 5-4 win that gave the Cardinals a commanding 3-1 series lead.

    The next day, his two-RBI performance in St. Louis’ 4-2 win in Game 5 sealed the series and his MVP trophy.

    “”I was asked earlier, ‘Did you think he would do that?'”” Lopez said. “”I didn’t think he would be the World Series MVP and win two world championships as a shortstop. I’d be lying if I told you that.

    “”I knew he’d be successful,”” Lopez added. “”Like I said, his work ethic, his integrity, his accountability – everything about the young guy is just success.””

    Ryan Casey is a journalism senior. He can be reached at sports@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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