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.