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August 28, 2002

Undercover Shortstop
By Dan Patrick

With Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur coming up in the next three weeks, the issue of religion vs. obligation -- whether to play or not to play -- will surface for baseball players committed to the Jewish faith. Shawn Green, David Eckstein and others will begin fielding questions about their playing status on the two holidays.

David Eckstein
Eckstein leads the major leagues with three grand slams.

But there's one big difference between Green and Eckstein -- Green is Jewish; Eckstein is not.

Still, that didn't stop Eckstein from being named to the Jewish All-American team while he was in college. Or from being criticized last season by a Long Beach newspaper for playing on Yom Kippur. Or from being queried by a Fenway Park vendor about his religion. Or from being flooded by e-mails and invites to bar mitzvahs and other simchas.

When I mentioned Eckstein would be on the radio show, I received several e-mails from well-wishers, offering support for a fellow member of the Jewish community. I hate to break the hearts of those belonging to such a loyal fan base, but Eckstein's Jewish heritage is nothing more than an assumption based on his last name.

The misunderstanding has helped make the Anaheim Angels shortstop somewhat of an enigma. What you see is not necessarily what you get.

His slight, 5-foot-6½ frame is not the physique of the prototypical, alpha-male, major-league player. When he's not in uniform, Eckstein carries his official Major League Baseball identification so he's not mistaken for a bat boy or a fan.

Yet the vertically challenged scrapper leads the league with three grand slams, two coming on consecutive days in April. What Eckstein lacks in stature, he makes up for in ability, determination and hustle. Last season, Eckstein set a rookie record for getting hit by 21 pitches, a number he has already surpassed this season.

Crowding the plate is the only way he can cover the outside corner with authority. But when inside pitches come too close, fear doesn't factor into the equation. He's just looking for an edge.

As a second baseman, Eckstein worked his way through the Red Sox farm system. Two weeks into the 2000 season at Triple-A Pawtucket, attempts to "correct" his swing left him batting a mere .160. Eckstein took matters into his own hands; he apologetically defied authority, reinstated his swing and raised his average to .245.

But when the Red Sox needed a third baseman, Lou Merloni got the nod; Eckstein got waivers. Picked up by the Angels, however, Eckstein hit .285 as a rookie and is batting a steady .287 in his second season.

Humble by nature, Eckstein is just happy to be in the majors. His work ethic and enthusiasm are apparent when he sprints to and from the dugout between every inning. As the Angels' leadoff hitter, he has been a major component in their success, the most surprising player on this season's most surprising team.

In September, as the tight AL West race comes to an exciting conclusion, don't expect Eckstein to take any holidays -- Jewish or otherwise.

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David Eckstein discusses his awkward road to the majors, the Jewish community and the Angels' run out West.
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