Ten years ago, the Angels gave the Cardinals a perfect Christmas gift.
The Cardinals, desperate to replace shortstop Edgar Renteria, who had become a free agent and signed with the Red Sox, hardly could believe their good fortune.
Eckstein was one player who filled two needs. He could replace Renteria at shortstop and he also could bat leadoff. Like Renteria, Tony Womack, who batted leadoff for the 2004 Cardinals, had become a free agent. Womack signed with the Yankees.
Pouncing on the opportunity to acquire a player described by general manager Walt Jocketty as “a perfect fit,” the Cardinals signed Eckstein on Dec. 23, two days after he became available.
It was a move they’d never regret, one that felt right from the very moment it occurred.
Eckstein ignited the Cardinals with his hustle, heart and smarts, leading them to two postseason appearances and a 2006 World Series championship.
Though Eckstein had sparked the Angels to their only World Series title in 2002 and had led American League shortstops in fielding percentage in 2004, the Angels sought an upgrade, citing Eckstein’s lack of arm strength as a liability.
Meanwhile, Renteria, a three-time all-star with the Cardinals, had bolted to the Red Sox, who gave him a four-year, $40 million contract.
With Renteria joining Boston, Orlando Cabrera, the shortstop who helped the Red Sox sweep the Cardinals in the 2004 World Series, declared for free agency. The Angels pursued him, offering a four-year, $32 million deal. When Cabrera accepted, Eckstein became expendable.
According to the Associated Press, the Cardinals, unable to find a suitable replacement for Renteria, were considering signing shortstop Barry Larkin, 40, who had become a free agent after 19 seasons with the Reds. When Eckstein became available, the Cardinals called with a three-year, $10.2 million offer.
Eckstein, 29, accepted. It was a bargain for the Cardinals.
“They were very aggressive,” Eckstein said to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “They were pretty much the first team to call … It was clear that this was a good fit. The best fit.”
John Mozeliak, the Cardinals’ assistant general manager, told the Associated Press, “David was the player we focused on right away after Cabrera signed.”
Said Jocketty to Derrick Goold of the Post-Dispatch: “We felt this was the guy, the perfect fit for our club for a lot of reasons. For his personality, for the way he goes about playing the game. He’s a gamer through and through. He’s the kind of player St. Louis will embrace. I think he will become a cult hero with our fans. He’s a hustler.”
Angels players and media were disappointed Eckstein departed.
Wrote San Bernardino Sun columnist Paul Oberjuerge: “The Angels just shot Bambi.”
Said Angels first baseman Darin Erstad to MLB.com: “He’s been the heart and soul of the team, an inspiration for all of us.”
Size doesn’t matter
Eckstein, 5 feet 6, 170 pounds, had 156 hits in 142 games for the 2004 Angels. He struck out just 49 times in 637 plate appearances. He made only six errors in 138 games at shortstop.
In the 2002 World Series against the Giants, Eckstein batted .310 with nine hits, three walks and six runs scored for the Angels.
Wrote Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz, “Eckstein is the kind of old-school player who commands such great respect and appreciation in St. Louis, a traditional baseball town.”
Rex Hudler, an Angels broadcaster who had been a hustling utilityman for the Cardinals from 1990-92, told Miklasz that he had named his son, David, in honor of Eckstein.
“He’s going to be revered as the new Huckleberry Finn of St. Louis and Missouri,” Hudler said of Eckstein.
Hudler said his 8-year-old daughter cried when she learned Eckstein was leaving the Angels. “Kids are his biggest fans,” Hudler said. “The children look up to him and relate to him because he’s so small … He inspires all of those kids who have been told they aren’t good enough.”
Asked about Eckstein’s subpar arm, Hudler replied, “He’s so smart. Extremely intelligent. He studies the hitters. He positions himself perfectly. He’s always in the right place. The ball comes right to him. I’ve never seen him make a mental mistake.”
Said Eckstein: “I don’t really look like your typical pro athlete. It means I always have to prove myself … I don’t want to lose that edge.”
St. Louis sparkplug
Cardinals manager Tony La Russa was delighted by the acquisition, calling Eckstein “a winning player.”
After speaking with La Russa, Eckstein told the Associated Press, “Mr. La Russa just said to play my game, be a pest at the plate and play solid defense.”
That’s exactly what Eckstein did for the Cardinals.
In three seasons (2005-07) as the St. Louis shortstop, Eckstein twice was named an all-star. He batted .297 with 465 hits in 398 career games for the Cardinals. He had a .357 on-base percentage with them. In 2005, Eckstein ranked second among National League shortstops in both assists (517) and double plays turned (123).
His crowning achievement came in 2006 when he was named winner of the World Series Most Valuable Player Award. Eckstein hit .364 (8-for-22) in the five-game series versus the Tigers, with four RBI and three runs scored.