Basketball has the gym rat, that unmistakable genus of devoted player indigenous to hot, sweaty gyms no matter the hour or size of audience (none being just fine). Baseball had no equivalent appellation, at least not until a stoic North Dakotan came along. This species spends more than six hours a day at the ballpark before the game even begins, has no interest in diversions during the season, has a deep appreciation of baseball history that is obvious each time he calls his chocolate-colored Labrador, and might break one of the oldest and most important individual records in baseball and still go home angry to his ice-fishing hole if it doesn't help his team get into the postseason.
"An Erstad," Anaheim Angels bench coach Joe Maddon says. "Webster should list it right next to gym rat. An Erstad. That's what it is in baseball."
Technically speaking that would be a Darin Charles Erstad, the Angels leftfielder with the dedication to his vocation that would shame a Trappist monk. A self-confessed creature of habit, he typically arrives at the ballpark at 12:30 p.m. for a 7 o'clock game, leaving him plenty of time for his rituals: hitting balls off a tee ("Anywhere from 30 seconds to a half hour, just until my swing is right," he says), studying videotape, taping the knobs of his bats and playing cards. "If it weren't for me and the dog," says his wife, Sarah, Darin's sweetheart from Jamestown (N.Dak.) High, "I'm convinced he'd spend his off days in front of the television watching ball games."
Says Erstad, "During the season I really don't do anything else but play baseball. I've never wanted to get away from baseball for a break. Why would I want to get away from it? I love the game. I always have. There's nothing else I'd rather do."
Erstad, 26, and in his fourth full big league season, is so old school that he named his 18-month-old Lab Hank in honor of Hank Greenberg, the Hall of Fame first baseman, because he figured a large dog deserved the name of a tough, old-time slugger. Now Erstad is invoking the name of a first baseman from even deeper in baseball history: George Sisler of the St. Louis Browns, who in 1920 pounded out 257 hits, a record that hasn't just stood for 80 years but also has rarely been challenged. The top 10 hit totals all occurred between 1911 and 1930. No one in 70 years has come within 16 hits of Sisler's record, not even with the advantage of eight extra games since the schedule was expanded to 162 beginning in 1961.
In an era in which the home run and self-promotion are the siren calls of stardom, Erstad—a welcome anachronism—is the right man to challenge Sisler. On Sunday, after going 1 for 3 in Anaheim's 5-0 loss to the Oakland A's at Network Associates Coliseum, he had smacked 161 hits in the Angels' 99 games. Sisler had 161 after 99 games with the Browns. Projected over the remainder of the season, Erstad is on pace to finish with 263-"It's very possible [he'll break the record]," says Angels first baseman Mo Vaughn. "I played [in Boston] with Nomar Garciaparra and I played with Wade Boggs, and I've never seen anybody for 3� months consistently rain line drives all over the field the way Darin has."
"If anybody's going to do it, he'd be the guy," says Cardinals centerfielder Jim Edmonds, Erstad's former teammate in Anaheim. "Everybody else has days when we say, 'I'm tired. If I can just get through this game, I'll go hard tomorrow.' He never has a day like that." So intense is Erstad that teammates know not to shag balls in leftfield during batting practice without asking his permission. "It's my position," he says. Explaining his carpe diem philosophy, he says, "Any game could be my last, and any at bat could be my last. I'd hate to think it ended without me giving my best effort." He is more oblique when asked about catching Sisler. "Anything is possible," is about as much as he allows. "It won't have much meaning if we don't win [a playoff spot]." The Angels ended the week in third place in the American League West, five games behind the first-place Seattle Mariners and, in the wild-card race, one game behind Oakland.
Sisler set the record at age 27 for a fourth-place Browns team that finished 76-77 A lefty like Erstad, Sisler was a deft fielder with good speed who, despite the implications of his record, was much more dangerous than a mere singles hitter. Playing every inning of that season, Sisler won the batting tide (.407) and finished second to Babe Ruth in home runs (19) and RBIs (122). Sisler capped his season by pitching a scoreless ninth inning of the last game.
Erstad, hitting .381 at week's end, is similarly multidimensional. He had an assist on July 13 while playing shortstop in an emergency five-man infield alignment. He has already tied his career high with 19 home runs and plays either left or centerfield with nonstop pluck. Erstad is a good candidate to challenge the hits record because he bats leadoff for a power-packed lineup (affording him plenty of at bats) and is an aggressive hitter who draws walks only occasionally (42 at week's end). However, he is an unlikely challenger because of how he played last year, when he batted only .253. The harder he tried, the worse he hit—and the worse he hit, the more Sarah made sure Hank met him at the front door before she did. "I'd wait to see how he greeted Hank," Sarah says with a laugh. "I could tell by his voice if I should leave him alone for a while. This year I think he's done a much better job of letting things go."
Says Maddon, "Darin's the kind of guy who believes in a work ethic: You have to suffer for success. Last year he suffered."