Small ball - Undersized Eckstein promises a giant effort

Friday, January 7, 2005

ST. LOUIS -- For years, David Eckstein has dismissed the chatter by those questioning his range as a 5-foot-7, 165-pound shortstop. Little wonder that fielding questions Wednesday about how he'll fit in as Edgar Renteria's successor in baseball-crazy St. Louis didn't faze him a bit.

After all, the Cardinal newcomer submits, challenges are not foreign to a guy from a family he calls programmed to overtake any obstacle, with some of his siblings having kidneys not their own to prove it.

He calls the family matters his "backbone," the grit that drives him. And he says that Cardinals fans anxious about prospects of an infield without Renteria -- the two-time Gold Glover and four-time All-Star who defected to Boston -- can expect a player naturally motivated to put such worries to rest.

"All my life, people have underestimated what I do," he told St. Louis-area media about two weeks after accepting a $10.25 million, three-year contract with the Cardinals after being cut loose by Anaheim. "What I do, it does not look natural. (But) I think you'll be happy with the job I do.

"Having an opportunity to play baseball is such a blessing, and when I'm on the field I never take it for granted."

His message to Cardinal faithful: "You'll get everything I have every single night."

Eckstein was the second major offseason acquisition for the Cardinals, who obtained 17-game winner Mark Mulder from the Athletics for two pitchers and a minor league catching prospect.

Eckstein, who turns 30 on Jan. 20, insisted that while the Cardinals have told him his home is at shortstop, he suggested he'd play second at times if asked.

Regardless of his switch to the NL, Eckstein's mantra remains simple: Just give him a glove and watch him go.

"It's going to be a fun challenge," he says.

Baseball, he intones, is small potatoes compared to the stuff he's endured.

His two sisters and one of his two brothers, as youths, underwent extensive dialysis and eventual kidney transplants. Eckstein's mother even donated one of her kidneys to one daughter. The organ recipients have done well; two of the siblings have earned law degrees, the third a master's.

But lately, Eckstein's father has been hospitalized -- not for kidney disease that has required dialysis but for surgical repair of serious complications from breaking his ribs in a fall -- an injury worsened by his two-week lag in getting medical attention.

So when it comes to baseball, David Eckstein says as a guy free of kidney disease, "it's hard to complain."

Eckstein talked of also being blessed about being part of "Cardinal Nation," where he's expected to replace Womack in the leadoff slot. Eckstein is coming off a season in which he batted .276 with two homers, 35 RBIs and 92 runs scored for Anaheim. He was the AL's second-hardest player to strike out, with just 49 in 566 at-bats.

Eckstein had a career-best 18-game hitting streak last season and led major-league shortstops with a .988 fielding percentage, committing just six errors.

In Anaheim, Eckstein had been a fan favorite, helping the Angels win the 2002 World Series title. Last month, he chose the Cardinals because they aggressively pursued him and likes their chances of returning to the World Series.

In the offseason, Eckstein was courted by several other clubs but made the Cardinals his priority after they came calling, amped about joining a team that last season led the major leagues with 105 victories and had the National League's best offense.

"I'm glad I'm part of this lineup, and I can't wait to try to be a part of it," Eckstein said. "I think I ended up in a place that will be a great fit."

"To be wanted by a club that has a great opportunity to win a championship, I feel lucky."

For Eckstein, the reasons go well beyond baseball.

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