Ballplayers have never been one of North Dakota's chief exports. Gun-slingers, O.K. Painted-canyon postcards, sure. But no one would call the state a field of dreams—at least not until Darin Erstad sprang from the plains to remind folks of another natural long-ball hitter from those parts, a fellow who did away with Babe Ruth's season home run record.
Erstad, a 6'2" leftfielder with lightning bat speed and a knack for getting himself noticed, is widely expected to be the first collegian chosen in baseball's June amateur draft. As of Monday he was hitting .470 for Nebraska with 12 home runs and 57 RBIs, threatening school records in all three categories. Should he reach the majors, he will have completed a rise from obscurity worthy of fable.
The closest major league city to Erstad's home base of Jamestown is Minneapolis, a six-hour drive. To date, only one famous athlete has come from the Flickertail State: Roger Maris, who came out of Fargo to hit 61 home runs for the New York Yankees in 1961. Before this year Erstad had already earned some recognition as a blue-chip ballplayer—but of another sort. He won the job of punter and long-range field goal kicker on the Cornhuskers' football team last season after he and his baseball buddies made an audition tape of him kicking and punting and sent it to coach Tom Osborne. He finished 14th in the nation in punting with a 42.6-yard average, and converted three of eight field goal attempts. Moreover, he is the proud owner of a national championship ring.
Growing up, Erstad was a four-sport virtuoso, starring in football, baseball, hockey and track. He played so many sports mostly because there was little else to do. "I wasn't exactly going to nightclubs," Erstad says. Since Jamestown High didn't field a baseball team, Erstad, who bats and throws lefthanded, played American Legion ball. When he was 17, four pro scouts showed up to watch him play in the state tournament. The following spring 20 pro scouts came to see him play. But among Division I colleges only Creighton and Nebraska recruited him. Steve Gillispie, a Nebraska assistant who coached him one summer in American Legion ball, raved to Cornhusker coach John Sanders about the raw North Dakota kid, and Sanders offered Erstad a scholarship sight unseen. Nine months later Erstad turned down the New York Mets, who drafted him in the 13th round, to go to Lincoln.
The consensus among pro scouts is that Erstad can hit for power and average as well as run, field, throw and, quips Sanders, "hang around in a phone booth with an S on his chest." He lived up to most of that billing last summer when he batted .340 and was named MVP of the Cape Cod League—perhaps the most prestigious summer league for collegians—despite leaving two weeks early to report for fall football practice.
Any hope that Erstad, a junior, would come back to Nebraska's football team next fall vanished when he announced recently that he plans to sign with the major league team that drafts him in June. He has been patient with his dream of playing in the majors long enough. Says Erstad, "It's my time."