ATHENS, Ga. — The skies darken and rumble above the head of the Littlest Angel, who doesn't appear to notice.
"Great baseball weather," David Eckstein says, smiling underneath three long-sleeved shirts and thick sweat pants and cleats caked in red Georgia clay.
He is standing in the outfield of a nearly deserted college baseball stadium, playing catch with teenagers and young minor leaguers, his fourth hour of work on this absurd January day.
The temperature dips into the 30s. There are no fans. There is no music. Nobody speaks. The only sounds are the thump of leather and the gentle buzz of the ball.
Then, suddenly, there is a rat-tat-tat from the clouds.
"It's sleeting!" somebody shouts, and blowing ice is everywhere, pelting their gloves and peppering their faces and sliding into their shirts.
The kids run for cover.
Eckstein walks to shortstop.
His brother Rick walks to home plate with a bucket of frayed balls and begins hitting him grounders.
The kids are looking at them like they are crazy. But the kids are looking at it wrong.
For Eckstein, this isn't only sleet. This is the New York Yankees in October. This is the doubt of every spring. This is the clattering of doom he believes he must fight against every moment, even in the weeks after his greatest moment.
The ice is coming down hard now, collecting in the corners of the dugout, everyone silently staring as a World Series champion catches grounder after grounder after grounder.
"Dry rain!" David Eckstein shouts, cold drops falling from his reddened nose and into his grin. "It's only dry rain!"
Like those blinking flashbulbs that surrounded them with every final out in every final game last autumn, the Angels were brilliant and loud ... and gone.
They emerged from behind the Orange curtain to win a World Series championship and dominate the national sports scene for several chilling weeks.
Then, just as quickly, they disappeared into a winter filled with a question.
Will this change them?
Will their success affect their rare championship work ethic and clubhouse chemistry? How can they continue to work so hard and care so much?
That's what happens to flashbulbs, right? One pop and they're burned?
One month before the start of spring training, I showed up at David Eckstein's winter workout home looking for the answer.
After all, nobody was touched more by the Angel success than this boyish curiosity turned national inspiration.
One minute, Eckstein was a freak of nature, a second baseman forced to play shortstop, a guy with small hands and a funky throw, a castoff with a baby face and bad haircut.
The next minute, the sports world was watching him stare down Roger Clemens and run around Barry Bonds and become one of the most unlikely champion shortstops in baseball history.
All of this was certain to change him, right?
I carried the question to a brick house in a wooded neighborhood near the University of Georgia.
Where I promptly tripped over a pile of clothes in a basement hallway.
They were outside Eckstein's bedroom. Those were his clothes.
The World Series winner is spending his winter in a windowless room, without a dresser, without a mirror, and without a mortgage.
His spoils of victory are a bed, a TV, and a batting cage in the garage of the house that belongs to his brother Rick.
"I never needed much," Eckstein said, shrugging.
I then squeezed into his sister's silver Nissan Maxima, the same car he drove last year, more than 60,000 miles, cloth seats, no CD player because he owns no CDs.
"I know some people might think this looks funny when I drive it in the players' lot," Eckstein said. "But I've never understood judging somebody by his car."
He made nearly as much money for his World Series share as his salary -- $278,000 for World Series, $280,000 in salary -- but he has spent little.
He bought some department store suits. He bought his brother a video camera and computer to help dissect his swing.
His fanciest vacation was a trip to a Florida beach, where he brought his glove and played catch.
His fanciest meal was, well, OK, this is something.
It occurred in the White House, in November, after President Bush instructed commentator George Will to invite five important baseball folks for a hot-stove dinner.
Besides Eckstein, there were Curt Schilling, Charles Johnson, Todd Helton and Larry Lucchino.
The other four guys brought their wives. Eckstein brought his mom.
The other four guys, particularly Schilling, dominated the conversation. But Eckstein had the game-winning hit.
After the meal had ended, Bush sidled up to Patricia Eckstein.
"He said, 'I might not be the best president, but I will always hold up the integrity of this office. That's why I like your son so much. He plays the game with such integrity,' " David recalled.
At which point, the other four baseball folks climbed into their fancy cars and were whisked away while Eckstein and his mother walked down the White House driveway to their hotel across the street.