Erstad likely to be role player for Astros

February 23, 2008 2:19:57 PM PST
Darin Erstad has been on the disabled list nine times in his career, four in the past two seasons alone with ankle injuries. Something about baseball keeps bringing him back for more. The 33-year-old Erstad, who signed a one-year deal with the Houston Astros in December, admits his best playing days probably are behind him. But he still thinks he can produce and won't walk away until someone forces him to quit.

"My mind's not ready to give up," said Erstad, a major leaguer since 1996. "They're going to probably have to kick me out and rip it off my back. It's in your blood. You want to do it."

Erstad will fill a dual role as the first outfielder off the bench and Lance Berkman's backup at first base. He'll also provide valuable mentoring to young starting outfielders Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence.

"He's already done that, I didn't even have to tell him," Houston manager Cecil Cooper said. "Those are guys you want."

Erstad hit .248 with four homers and 32 RBIs in 87 games with the Chicago White Sox last season. He's always been known more for his defense and is the only player to win a Gold Glove as an infielder and outfielder, a unique accomplishment from his 10 seasons with the Los Angeles Angels. He also caught the last out of the 2002 World Series and keeps the game ball stored in a box back home in California.

Pence followed Erstad's career growing up, admiring how hard he played and his fielding prowess. Now, their lockers are side-by-side and the 24-year-old Pence already has started tapping Erstad for tips.

"I asked him about last year," Pence said. "I told him I felt a little tentative because they (the Astros) didn't want me diving for balls, but that I'm kind of an aggressive player. One thing he's already said that I really liked was, 'You're an athlete. You got here because you're an athlete. Be athletic. Be yourself.'"

Erstad was just passing down some words of wisdom he gleaned from his decade in the Angels' clubhouse, when he was tutored by veterans like Jim Edmonds, Chuck Finley and Gary Disarcina.

"I've had some pretty good teachers, too," Erstad said. "Edmonds taught me a lot. He talked about reading what the pitcher is throwing, where is the catcher setting up, who is the hitter -- trying to know where the ball is going to go before it's even hit. Stuff like that I had never thought about before, he told me.

"I'm not going to sit here and preach to those guys," Erstad said of Pence and Bourn. "But if they ask a question, I'll be more than happy to help them."

Erstad has committed only 33 errors in 1,382 career games, a .995 fielding percentage. He said he follows two simple guidelines whenever he takes his position in the field -- leave your hitting stats in the dugout and constantly stay alert.

"You have to be able to separate offense from defense," Erstad said. "You see a lot of guys in the field, between pitches, working on their swings. I just don't believe in that. I believe you always have to be completely focused on defense.

"And I always tell myself, 'Every pitch, every play,"' he said. "You have to be into it every single pitch. Through the course of the year, players take pitches off and that's when you get exposed. It's a tough mind-set, but that's what it takes."

Pence already has taken note of Erstad's work habits, along with Miguel Tejada's.

"Those guys are good for a reason," Pence said. "It's because they go about their business the right way."

While Erstad knows he won't play much, Cooper said he's more than just a grizzled veteran offering sage advice around the clubhouse. He promises Erstad will see time at all three outfield positions and get more opportunities than Orlando Palmeiro did in a similar role in 2007. Palmeiro appeared in 101 games, mostly as a pinch hitter, and wasn't re-signed after the season.

"When we needed him to do things, the guy hadn't been up in a few times," Cooper said. "You have to play your bench, you have to use them."

Erstad missed a month last season with a sprained left ankle and sat out most of 2006 with bone spurs in his right ankle. He's healthy now and doesn't care how Cooper uses him, as long as the Astros win.

"I'm here for whatever Coop needs me to do," he said. "I just want to help out. Wherever I can fit in and help, I'll do it. I've always played this game to win and I've had the opportunity to do that. At the end of the day, that's what really matters."

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