Stopped short

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla.--The voice is loud and off-key, and it can be heard above the stereo blasting bad rock and roll through the locker room.

The man singing along with the Black Crowes' awful anthem looks around and grins, like a kid trying to rustle up a little mischief, except no one seems to notice. Closing pitcher John Wetteland--the born-again, heavy-metal-listening, Harley-riding fastballer who's at once so masterful and so wild on the mound--buries himself in the USA Today crossword puzzle. Starting pitcher Roger Pavlik, the man with the arm so enigmatic it resembles a question mark after every pitch, sits in front of his locker puffing away at a Marlboro Light. New millionaire utility infielder Lee Stevens sits near his locker like a statue, waiting for someone in silence, and a few other straggling players seem likewise uninterested in the song stylings coming from the new shortstop.

And again, Kevin Elster grins. His head is wrapped in a white stocking, his hair piled atop his head revealing a widow's peak. He wears black tights and a red T-shirt. He looks for a moment not like a major-league baseball player but like a man playing the role of one, like someone sent from central casting when the Texas Rangers sent word they needed a shortstop and quick.

Elster, among the principal reasons the Rangers won the American League West in 1996, exudes such confidence and gets away with such minor mischief. You can get away with anything when your teammates revere you, when they look at you with a mixture of respect and not a little awe. If Elster is among the most popular players with fans, those who were amazed at his comeback in 1996 and heartbroken by his departure for Pittsburgh the following year, his teammates are even more enamored of him.

"There is nobody better at fielding a ground ball," says first baseman Will Clark, whose locker is next to Elster's in the Port Charlotte training facility. "We wanted him back. He's a very steadying influence on the field, and off the field, he's just another one of the veterans who has been through the school of hard knocks. In order to be successful in this game, you've got to have some self-confidence, and the man knows he can field; he knows he can hit, and he knows he's gonna be on the field every day. And for me, I know when a ball's hit up the middle, I've got confidence it's gonna be caught, and I know there's gonna be a perfect throw on the way to first."

Kevin Elster is back with the team where he was reborn in 1996--when he drove in 99 runs, smashed 25 home runs, and proved he was not yet ready to become another young player who had betrayed such considerable promise.

He had all but been out of baseball during the two years before he arrived in Arlington: Elster was a journeyman at the end of his trip, a former major-leaguer relegated to playing a handful of games in such dead-end stops as Tampa, Albany, San Antonio, and Scranton. He had all but given up on the sport he had played since he was a kid in San Pedro, California. The closest he got to playing in the pros was appearing as a Minnesota Twin in the not-so-awful movie Little Big League, about a kid who inherits the Twins and almost manages them to the World Series.

Elster was finished with baseball in 1995--and baseball was, it seemed, finished with him.

"I was workin' on other careers and didn't want to play baseball anymore," he says. "I was burned out on it and didn't want to go through the steps necessary to get back to where I needed to be. I had a lot of perspective, and that attitude helped me. I was like, I didn't give a fuck. Though I would go out there and be very professional and do my job, I didn't care. Two years ago, my attitude was, 'I'm just layin' it on the line,' and that certainly helped me. I didn't care about failing. How that helps you succeed, I don't know. It just did that year."

Elster came to Texas in the spring of 1996 as one of seven non-roster invitees fighting for a spot on the bench. He was there to back up Benji Gil, the young man who Rangers management had long thought would become the team's shortstop of the future, and not without reason: He had the range, the arm, the ability to make the difficult play look routine. Yet Gil also made the routine play inexplicably difficult, missing ground balls as though on purpose. He was a thrill to watch for all the wrong reasons, a prodigy who never evolved into a player; Gil lost the shortstop position four times last season as management brought in any warm body to take his place, so awful had he become. Bucky Dent, his coach during his tenure in Texas, was frustrated by Gil's lack of discipline--frustrated, and, by the end, completely bewildered. His teammates came to resent his performance on the field, and Gil eventually turned so far into himself that he all but disappeared off the field. During the winter of 1997, he was sent to the Chicago White Sox, written off for good.

It perhaps didn't help that days before the start of the 1996 season, Gil suffered a back injury that knocked him out of the lineup--and gave Elster his shot at starting, and at newfound stardom. By the end of the year, after the Rangers shrugged off the label of perennial loser that had followed the team from Washington in 1972, Elster was named comeback player of the year by numerous publications. At last, he delivered on the potential he showed when he had been drafted more than a decade earlier.

"Even if we were to win the World Series this year, it would never be bigger than that special bond we had in 1996," Elster says. "Everybody came together for one common goal from day one. We won the first seven games [of the season], and from then on, it was like, 'Boys, this is gonna be our year. We gotta win this thing.' If we didn't win it [the AL West] that year, this organization was never gonna win. We felt all that pressure of 25 years of not winning, and it was such a huge relief once we finally won that. It was so special. All those guys who had played the last 25 years, that was for them."

The New York Mets drafted Elster, a letterman at Marina High School in Huntington Beach, California, in 1984. He proved from the start he was a more than able defenseman: His rookie year in the New York-Penn League, playing for Little Falls, he was an all-star shortstop, the best on the circuit. Just two years later, he was called up to the big club, where he played in 19 games before getting sent down to Triple-A ball in Tidewater--where, again, he outperformed every other shortstop in the minors. The boy had gifts and did his job, smothering ground balls and making perfect throws to first. And he could hit. Once, against the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1988, he sent two over the fence in a single game.

From 1988 to '90, Elster was the Mets' starting shortstop, and his full-time career in New York began with a flourish: At the end of the '88 season, he found himself with 60 straight errorless games, which was, for a while, the National League record. But within two years, things seemed to go dreadfully wrong. In August 1990, Elster began experiencing pain in his right shoulder; the next month, he underwent arthroscopic surgery that sidelined him for the rest of the year.

From then on, Elster was known as the injured man, going on the disabled list every year after that. In 1991, a strained left groin put him on the bench during most of May; in the sixth game of the '92 season, he injured his right shoulder and underwent major surgery. He barely played at all for the next three seasons, bouncing from club (the Mets) to club (the Los Angeles Dodgers) to club (the Florida Marlins) to club (the San Diego Padres, the New York Yankees, the Kansas City Royals, the Philadelphia Phillies), rehabbing in anonymity in the minors. From 1992 to 1996, he played in 129 games, most in baseball's basement.

Which made his '96 comeback so much more remarkable--and his desire to stay here in 1997 so much more tangible. But he simply cost too much to a franchise that was spending more than $50 million already. Gil was in place, and so Elster went to Pittsburgh, desperate to prove 1996 hadn't been a fluke. His first month with the Pirates was a remarkable one: By the middle of May, he led the team in RBIs (25) and home runs (with seven), and he had committed only one error in his first 39 games.

But on May 16, while running the bases against the Florida Marlins, Elster collided with Marlins first baseman Kurt Abbott and fractured his left wrist. Two days later, Elster went on the disabled list and was, once more, out of baseball. He left for Las Vegas, where he and his wife, Kimberlee, began building a new home. Elster watched the game from afar, aware of the Rangers' problems at shortstop but unable to do anything about them.

Elster was not the only player the Rangers sought in the off-season to replace Gil. Management considered bringing in Kansas City's Jay Bell, who ended up signing with the Arizona Diamondbacks, in addition to Ozzie Guillen of the Chicago White Sox and San Francisco's Jose Vizcaino, who ended up with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

"If you end up going for just one guy and then you don't get him, then you're in trouble," Rangers manager Johnny Oates says of the list he and general manager Doug Melvin considered. But in the end, the choice was obvious from the start: The Rangers wanted Elster back, and he was desperate to return to the team where his career had been reborn.

Still, Elster is no romantic when it comes to baseball. He has succeeded enough to appreciate its thrills, and he has failed enough to know intimately how quickly the game turns into a job, then turns into betrayal. Even now, he's a 33-year-old who seems much older, like a man who realized early on that it often takes an adult to make a living playing a child's game.

"I was absolutely through with the game in 1996," he says now. "I was talked into playing again by my family, by my wife. To be honest with you, it was for the money. I was too young not to play. If someone wants to give you a lot of money and you can still play this game, you can go through it. And in the process, in 1996, I found a new love and respect for the game. But it's a job for me, and I will play it out. Believe me, when you have to get up every single day and go to the ballpark on days you don't want to go--when you feel sick, sore, when you don't want to show up--you can't tell me it's not a job, and that's what it is more than 50 percent of the time. It's a seven-day grind for six straight months. In a lot of ways, it's a marathon test of stamina. It's fun when you go out there and get two, three hits. Shit, it's great. But now, I'm entering the twilight of my career, and I'm proud of what I've done."

The question, of course, remains: Can Elster accomplish in 1998 what he did two years ago, when his 99 runs batted in helped lead the Rangers out of the basement for one short moment and made them winners? Oates, perhaps to lessen the burden, says he does not expect Elster to drive in 99 runs this year. Indeed, the manager insists, Elster was brought back to plug the leak between second and third, simply to catch the ball and throw the ball and play defense in a way Benji Gil never could. The offense will have to come from Ivan Rodriguez and Juan Gonzalez and Rusty Greer and Fernando Tatis and the other players who are "supposed to play the offensive game."

"Expectations are high," Oates says, "but that's the nature of this game. If you don't have expectations, you don't belong in this game. I expect to win a World Series. Anything less than that would be a disappointment. If our fans don't expect us to win...well, I know they do. Without expectations, there's no hope."

Elster laughs when he hears Oates' assertion that the shortstop will not be counted upon to provide runs; he says he has heard that ever since coming to the majors, where managers told him simply to catch and throw and let the big bats score the runs. Yet batting coach Rudy Jaramillo says Elster still swings a quick bat, still has power in that wrist and in those arms. Elster says, grinning, that he is more than just "bonus offense." It's too late in his career to surprise. Now, he must deliver.

"Of course I wanna drive in runs for the club and be there for them like I was in '96, and if I am and I stay healthy and the rest of the team stays healthy, no one's gonna stop us," he says. "Expectations are certainly fair. Professional athletes are paid a lot of money, and fans should expect a lot. Certainly I'm going to give it my best effort. That's all anybody can ask."

And, if his history tells us anything, that's exactly what Kevin Elster will deliver.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky