Cover Story

Baseball as it should be

"Baseball as it should be" Continued...

Issue: "All heart," July 14, 2007

Eckstein earned a scholarship and twice was named to both the all-SEC team and the Academic All-American team. (On the basis of his name he also was selected for the Jewish All-American team, even though there is no Judaism in his background.) "Just keep working, working, working," Eckstein told WORLD on the field before one game, when asked the reason for his success, "and don't worry. If you start worrying in this game, everything becomes even harder. Work is your friend. Worry is your enemy."

But how does he keep from worrying, in a sport where a player can hit the ball perfectly and still make an out, and a fielder's fame can ebb from one ground ball to the next? Eckstein explained, "I'm not as big as the other guys, so I've always known that I had to work real hard. But even with all that, I couldn't do anything without God. It's all Him. Let Him take control. If I go 0 for 4 I just keep working hard and praying. I'm not anxious because I know it will turn out all right. . . . My faith in Jesus is everything to me. You have to understand that He's working in His way. I've got to do everything possible to be prepared, and then to let Him take over."

Eckstein showed that preparation during pre-game fielding practice: Some players are lackadaisical about it, but at 4:10 p.m. (the game would start three hours later) he was fielding ground balls again and again. There's nothing slick about his style: His arm is not that strong, so he has to take a running step toward first base to get some momentum behind his throws. The same effort was evident in batting practice. Some players go through the ritual of bunting the first pitch, but Eckstein bunted almost half the pitches. Some players just hit up the middle, or put on a home-run show for fans, but Eckstein was practicing positional hitting: Hit one pitch to right field, the next to left.

When his pre-game practice ended, Eckstein politely signed autographs for fans, including one mom who had her children dressed in No. 5 and No. 27 jerseys-those are the numbers of Pujols and another St. Louis star, Scott Rolen-and kept calling him Mr. Ecksteen. (It's pronounced Eck-stine, but the shortstop did not correct her, nor did he correct Bud Selig when the baseball commissioner mispronounced Eckstein's name last October while awarding him his World Series MVP award. "Doesn't matter how they pronounce the name," Eckstein said. "I'm just glad to be here.")

The game itself that night was both unusual and typical for Eckstein. The strange event came right away, when he led off the game with his first home run of the year. Eckstein hit 27 in his six major league seasons before this year: He stands close to the plate, leans into pitches, and gets his reward either by using every bit of his power or by getting hit by a pitch. (He set a rookie record by being hit 21 times in 2001 and had a league-leading 27 plunks in 2002.)

The typical parts of the game came later, when Eckstein ranged far into left-field foul territory to catch a pop-up, and when he ran down to first base after a walk. He seems all energy on the field, not even standing in his shortstop position: He often walks around in little circles, and he runs into the dugout at the end of each inning. A psychologist might mutter "ADD," but Eckstein says he has "joy" just to be able to play.

WORLD asked him, "What do you pray for?" Eckstein replied, "I pray not to get hurt, and that I'll be able to take the ability God gave me and multiply it." Eckstein certainly has talent: He can hit a curveball, which Michael Jordan, a foot taller, could not. But Sports Illustrated this spring asked 413 major league baseball players, "Which player gets the most out of the least talent?"-and Eckstein received 77 percent of the votes. No other player received more than 3 percent. Eckstein was selected for the last two All-Star games not on the basis of the awesome talent that some stars have, but because of an awesome work ethic.

A batting slump in April and early May left him vote-shy for this year's All-Star game: He then raised his average to over .300, only to miss the last two weeks in June with a lower back strain. He says that such concerns are minor compared to the emotional roller coaster he rode in the seventh grade when it turned out that two sisters and a brother needed kidney dialysis and received (eventually) transplants. Eckstein wrote in his autobiography for kids, Have Heart, that "despite our family misfortune, nobody blamed God or turned bitter or asked: 'Why us?'"

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