Dodgers Shortstop Kevin Elster has returned, not only from the darkest basement of baseball oblivion but also from the deck of his suburban Las Vegas pool, where he hung out for nearly a year. After going without a job in the 1999 season, he has opened the new millennium doing full-time work. Through Sunday the 35-year-old Elster, a career .228 hitter coming into this season, was batting .300 with five home runs. He's a man on a mission, focused on a lifelong goal—no, not big league success. Elster wants to open a bar.
He already has the location (downtown Vegas) picked out. The name, too. Hootie ("A word that can mean anything to anyone," says Elster) will be that rare Vegas joint without slots or a $4-95 prime rib special. "The city needs a place where people can play live music and just jam," says Elster, an amateur drummer. Elster hopes to open Hootie within two years. "My place," he says, "is going to be very different."
Consider the source. Elster is a traditional 12-year major leaguer like roast pork is a traditional bar mitzvah entree. When he joined the Mets as a rookie in 1986, he was a highly touted, though weak-hitting, defensive replacement He spent all or part of nine seasons in New York (seven with the Mets, two with the Yankees), sometimes as a regular, often battling injuries, never finishing above .241 or with more than 10 home runs. After the '95 season, in which he hit .186 in 36 games with the Yankees and the Phillies, he filed for free agency, apparently ending a career that never really was.
Nonetheless, in 1996 the Rangers invited Elster to spring training and made him into a starter when Benji Gil was sidelined with a bad back. Against all logic, he finished with 24 home runs and 99 RBIs, Texas records for a shortstop. "As I got older, I gained strength," he says, "but it's knowledge, too. You learn how to play."
Elster failed to sustain the magic—he had only 15 homers and 62 RBIs in the two subsequent seasons with the Pirates and the Rangers. Age and injury also took away his range, and Elster, with few playing opportunities but financially secure, retired. "Baseball is a job to me, not an obsession," he says. "I just felt like staying home, sitting by the pool and not playing baseball. I was living a normal life."
Last January, Elster decided to give baseball one more try. His brother-agent, Patrick, called Dodgers general manager Kevin Malone, who signed Elster to a nonguaranteed $300,000 contract and invited him to spring training. He beat out Alex Cora as Los Angeles's regular shortstop. On April 11 Elster hit three home runs and drove in four runs in a 6-5 Dodgers win over the Giants. He added two more homers and six RBIs in two games last weekend against the Reds. His range is still limited, but L.A. manager Davey Johnson says that with Elster batting eighth, nobody can pitch around Todd Hundley and Adrian Beltre, the sixth and seventh hitters.
"Maybe if this season works out, I'd be willing to extend my career," says Elster. "I'm really enjoying myself. Besides, the money could help with my bar."