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First Things First

After Moving From Outfield, Erstad Is Ahead of Schedule Learning Finer Points Around the Bag

March 28, 1997|ELLIOTT TEAFORD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Angels knew Darin Erstad could punt a football, slap a hockey puck, clear a hurdle and play the outfield, but replace a two-time Gold Glove first baseman?

Hmmmmm.

Well, why not?

It is worth a try.

Certainly, it was no more mind-boggling than tossing Erstad into the mix to form a four-man outfield rotation that created clubhouse tension and confused nearly everyone in baseball.

It definitely made more sense than trading away Garret Anderson, Jim Edmonds or Tim Salmon to clear space for Erstad. After all, Anderson, Edmonds and Salmon are the Outfield of the Moment in the major leagues.

And since the Angels under the Walt Disney Co.'s ownership no longer seem bent on getting fleeced out of their promising young players by clubs looking to deal over-the-hill superstars, this move actually made sense.

The kid has a terrific glove, good speed and some sock in his bat.

Let's get him in the lineup, the Angels figured.

And so they have.

It's a low-risk move for the Angels. They don't expect Erstad to move to first base and immediately field the position with the flair and excellence of J.T. Snow, who won Gold Gloves in 1995 and '96.

They merely hope Erstad grows into his new job this season and becomes a proficient first baseman.

To ensure Erstad's success, the Angels have placed two highly qualified tutors at his side to speed the learning process. There's Rod Carew, a Hall of Famer, and Eddie Murray, a certain Hall of Famer when he retires, to aid Erstad with the finer points around the bag.

"If you can't learn the position with that kind of help . . . I don't know," said Erstad, 22. "Eddie has been fantastic. He's gone out of his way to help. He's seen it all. It's nice of him to help me. You can't ask for anything more."

If Erstad falters, Murray is there to step in.

After only a few weeks of spring training, that didn't seem necessary. Erstad looked like a polished veteran at first base. He dug out low throws deftly. He easily handled sharply hit grounders. He snared tough pop-ups in foul territory.

And after a slow start, he began to hit the ball hard.

"Watching him, he's farther along than I thought he would be," Murray said early in the spring. "He has some good hands, but it's a game of thinking. Coming from the outfield there's a lot more to do, a lot more to be aware of.

"I'm trying to point out to him that the game is still played before the ball is pitched. You don't want to over-saturate him trying to get him to absorb it. You know he's trying to log in the input but you don't want to add too much because you don't want to scare him."

Erstad isn't frightened.

He's approaching this as just another challenge.

The Angels believe Erstad will master the position in time and become their first baseman for many years to come.

After all, it's not as if they're simply taking a wild shot in the dark here.

Erstad's sparkling athletic resume shows he graduated from all-around jock in high school in Jamestown, N.D., to collegiate All-American. He played baseball, football and hockey and ran the high hurdles in high school, punted for the 1994 national champion Nebraska Cornhuskers and was major league baseball's first overall draft pick in '95.

"I knew he was an exceptional athlete, but to play hockey, football, track and baseball like he did in high school, I mean that's an exceptional athlete," said Bob Fontaine, Angel director of scouting and player personnel. "Because of his football commitments at Nebraska, he didn't play that much baseball. But he made all the adjustments.

"That's why we knew he could make the transition to first base."

The idea for the switch was hatched in August when Erstad was briefly sent to triple-A Vancouver. He practiced at first base quite a bit, but played in the outfield when he returned to the Angels in September.

By season's end, he had batted .284 with four homers and 20 runs batted in in 57 games. He also batted .305 with six homers and 41 RBIs in 85 games with Vancouver.

Seeking a place for Erstad during the off-season, the Angels settled on first base after trading Snow to San Francisco for left-handed pitcher Allen Watson in November.

"It was in the back of their minds when I got sent down," Erstad said. "In December, [General Manager] Bill Bavasi called and asked if I had a first baseman's glove. [Manager] Terry Collins called around Christmastime and said, 'Get ready.' "

Early plans also called for Erstad to bat in the leadoff position. Collins had redrawn his batting order midway through the spring, however, knowing the pressure might be too much for Erstad.

"He can do it, but it's an awful lot to ask of a young guy to switch positions and to lead off," Collins said. "He's a good athlete. He's shown a great aptitude to learn a new position. I didn't know anything about him before taking the job. I knew he was a No. 1 pick. I knew he could run and could swing the bat."

Collins isn't the only one impressed.

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