Opening Day (April 1, 2013) is 79 days away. We are counting down the 100 Walk Off Home Runs in Angels franchise history. Today we look at #79...
April 28, 2002 - One of the worst months in Angels baseball history, record-wise, was coming to a close, but the team that had started at 6-14 was suddenly having fun. On this Sunday afternoon, the big story was Saturday's 11-4 blowout of the Jays that featured a wild seventh inning capped off by David Eckstein hitting his first career grand slam.
Little did they all know that was just a warmup. Tim Salmon entered the game pinch hitting for DH Brad Fullmer in the seventh, singling and scoring the second Angels run of the game on a Scott Spiezio base hit. Salmon hit a solo homerun against Kelvim Escobar to lead off the bottom of the ninth to make 4-4 against the Jays.
The Sunday afternoon dragged on and on and the Blue Jays scraped out a run against Marc Lukasiewicz in the top of the fourteenth inning and relied on reliever Pedro Borbon to close it out. He gave up a single and a double. He got a line out and intentionally walked Bengie Molina - a notorious contact hitter and struck out Adam Kennedy swinging. So with two outs and the bases loaded, up stepped David Eckstein. Forget about yesterday, he was 0 for 6 in the Sunday game. He hit Borbon's third pitch on a 1-1 count into the Left Field seats and pandemonium erupted. A wild sense of destiny wafted in the air after the impossible had happened. The Angels were 8-5 winners.
Eckstein's explanation for his power surge was as self-effacing as any player ever speaking into a microphone. He asserted that when he hit homeruns it was actually not good because he was not doing his job. The cult of David Eckstein would envelop baseball in October of that year as the Angels went deeper into the playoffs. Cast as their scrappy leadoff hitter, the tenacity of this everyman excelling... winning even, on a national stage was a narrative too unique for broadcasters everywhere to ignore.
Eckstein was the first great acquisition of Angels GM Bill Stoneman. Hired after the 1999 season, he claimed Eckstein off of waivers from the Red Sox in August of 2000. They would raise the World series trophy up together two years and two months later. But two years after that, Eckstein was dumped in favor of a free agent signing.
David Eckstein's career .978 fielding percentage as a Shortstop in over 8,000 innings at the position ranks 15th all time in baseball history. His 23 runs of Total Zone's Total Fielding Runs Above Average was okay... for comparison, Ozzie Smith had 239 "TZtot" in just under 22,000 innings, but that is measuring against the greatest of all time. Orlando Cabrera, the man signed to take his place played 15,000+ innings at SS and had a TZtot of -3... that is negative three.
Eckstein though, was more than the numbers. He was a legitimate anti-star in a an era of contrarian populism - That he did not fit the mold of a baseball star actually lowered the threshold of what he needed to achieve to satisfy the fans. Nobody in Anaheim ever got cheered louder on a consistent basis in 0-3 and 0-4 games. And so the times that he did something fantastic, it's results were magnified into the realm of the miraculous.
And in his back to back grand slam games, he laid the foundation of faith in what was to be slowly revealed to the true believers and then to the newer converts as a miracle season. Eck's walk off grand slam was the first real miracle in a season that would be strung together with them.