David Eckstein was about to receive the beating of his life. The Angels' shortstop was on first base when Tim Salmon clubbed the most dramatic home run of his career, a two-run shot in the eighth inning of Game 2 of the World Series. Suddenly Anaheim had an 11-9 lead over the Giants, and the diminutive Eckstein braced for what was coming next. "Take a look at the tape, you'll see me edging away from him," says Eckstein, who greeted Salmon at home plate with his customary exuberance. "I was scared. You don't want to be the one he lets out his aggression on."
Salmon, the rightfielder teammates call Kingfish, is known to celebrate his home runs with high fives and fist bumps so forceful that they would draw assault charges if delivered outside the stadium. "The football player in me comes out," he says.
Eckstein had good reason to quake. Salmon, who had singled twice, walked and hit another two-run homer in his earlier Game 2 plate appearances, had waited 10 years to celebrate a moment like this. After making his major league debut as a late-season call-up in 1992, he won the American League Rookie of the Year award the following season. The club's longest-tenured player, Salmon is the franchise leader in home runs (269) and RBIs (894). Entering October he had played the most games (1,388) of any active major leaguer who hadn't appeared in the postseason. "I've been watching things like this from my couch for a longtime," said Salmon, still beaming nearly two hours after his game-winning homer. "You wonder, if you were at bat in that situation, whether you could do something like that."
A year ago he probably couldn't have. Salmon had surgery on his left shoulder before last season and spent most of 2001 trying to recover the muscle mass (about 30 pounds) and bat speed he had lost during his layoff. The result: a .227 average, 17 homers, a career-low 49 RBIs and a huge loss of confidence at the plate. "He was a mess," says hitting coach Mickey Hatcher. "It was a frustrating year for him."
Last spring Salmon arrived healthy and at his normal playing weight of 240 pounds, but he was still struggling early in the season. (He hit .192 in April.) That's when his wife, Marci, told him that when he used to hit well, his butt stuck out more in his stance. Salmon and Hatcher fished out video from 1997 when Salmon drove in a career-high 129 runs; sure enough, they saw, he had gotten away from the exaggerated, posterior-protruding crouch he had used then. Salmon adjusted his stance and honed his timing by taking hundreds of swings against a pitching machine that threw nothing but curveballs.
The adjustments worked. He hit .286 with 22 home runs and 88 RBIs in 2002 and was noticeably more animated on the field and in the clubhouse. "After last year I decided I was going to enjoy this and let my emotions out," Salmon says. "Some guys in here were shocked."
And, no doubt, sore. "You have to watch your hands after he hits a home run," says third baseman Scott Spiezio. "He'll break your fingers if you're not careful."
He may help put a world championship ring on one of those fingers, too.