If you believe the adage about variety, David Eckstein's game-day diet is severely lacking in spice. For breakfast Eckstein, the Angels' rookie shortstop, always eats a stack of pancakes. ("I just like pancakes," he says.) For lunch, four hours before game time, he downs a plate of teriyaki chicken and pasta. "I can't eat anything heavy before a game," says Eckstein, 26, who went to the monotonous menu a few years ago, when he was in the lower reaches of the Red Sox system. "This is the only thing I can eat enough of to have enough energy during the game."
It's easy to see why the carbo loading is necessary: The diminutive—his height is generously listed as 5'8"—and hyperactive Eckstein bounces around the field like an overheated molecule. His small-ball approach sparks Anaheim from the top of the batting order. Through Sunday he was fourth among American League lead-off hitters (minimum 50 starts) in on-base percentage (.347), and among the league's rookies he was second, to the Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki, in hits (118) and third in runs (61). He was also tied for the league lead in being hit by pitches (15) and was second in sacrifice bunts (12). Eckstein was batting .285 and had 13 stolen bases in 15 attempts. "He's a scrapper—does everything he can to get on," says Angels hitting coach Mickey Hatcher. "I know he pisses off a lot of pitchers."
Then there's the way Eckstein sprints to and from his position every inning, a display of enthusiasm that, along with his pint-sized frame, baby face and close-cropped red hair, reminds you of a Little Leaguer. Moreover, before every at bat, he engages in a frenetic on-deck routine: He swings a pair of bats around his head and sometimes jumps up and down as he swings, making it appear as if he has helicoptered himself off the ground.
Six months ago Eckstein, whom the Red Sox selected out of the University of Florida in the 19th round of the 1997 draft, figured he would spend this season windmilling bats in the minors again. Anaheim had plucked him off Boston's 40-man roster last August when the Red Sox tried to sneak him through waivers. Though the Angels seemed set at second ( Eckstein's natural position) with Adam Kennedy, they claimed Eckstein, who had hit better than .300 in three of his four seasons in the minors.
Then, when Kennedy broke a finger midway through spring training, Eckstein got his chance. Filling in at second during camp, Eckstein impressed manager Mike Scioscia with his grit and enthusiasm and became the Opening Day starter. Eckstein performed so well—.313 average with a .389 on-base percentage in April—that Scioscia moved him to shortstop after Kennedy returned nine games into the season. While Eckstein's professional experience at short was limited to about 20 games in the low minors and his lack of stature doesn't fit the present prototype for the position, he has played solidly, with nine errors in 89 games through Sunday. Says Scioscia, "He's been tremendous."
That hasn't stopped teammates from heckling Eckstein for his on-deck calisthenics, boring diet and diminutive stature. "I get 'batboy' comments a lot," he says. He's quick to add, however, that he has yet to be stopped by a stadium security guard who's reluctant to believe Eckstein is a big leaguer. "I just walk in like I belong," he says, "and no one stops me."