Stopped short

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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.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky