Stopped short

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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