SURPRISE, Ariz. – Darin Erstad was going on about the wonder of his little girl taking her first solo steps this week, how he stood back and counted each trembling stride, "One, two, three, four, five … ."
"Amazing," he said, sweetly. "It was great."
He was so pleased to have been given a moment that will never pass, and then reminded of the triumph of upright (if somewhat wobbly) self propulsion, the effort of getting off the floor and getting on with life.
Really, the timing could hardly have been better, as now they enter the baseball season as a father-daughter tandem, one foot pushing ahead of the other, Darin working just a bit harder than she will to get into the right-center-field gap.
"Things happen, you know," he said. "I'm not going to second-guess anything. It's just the path I was chosen to have. And whatever it is, it is. I couldn't have had a better time in Anaheim. I loved it. When I said I wanted to spend the rest of my career there, I meant it. But, it didn't work out that way. You move on."
An Angel for long enough to play in three geographical designations – California, Anaheim, Los Angeles – Erstad took his opening step toward the uncharted in early October. He'd undergone ankle surgery at the end of a season in which he'd managed only 95 at-bats, batted .221, gone homerless, and watched his friends and teammates lose touch with the Oakland Athletics in the middle of September.
His Angels had other plans for center field and first base, and there was no guarantee that Erstad – the man who'd gotten behind and pushed a World Series championship and two division title winners in the past five seasons – would ever be that Erstad again. Plus, he had this right ankle to deal with, a hard cast to lug around, a few hundred hours of rehabilitation ahead.
On some of those mornings, he admitted, retirement sounded pretty good, even at 32. So much of his game was in his feet, in the way he wouldn't budge on anything, ever. And now he was just trying to maneuver the front steps without tumbling into the driveway and getting run over by the newspaper delivery truck.
"It crossed my mind," he said. "During the winter, I didn't know. They tell you they fixed as much as they could and just hoped that would do the trick. After a couple months, the doctors said to start running on it and see how you feel. There were some iffy days in there where I wondered, but I just kept grinding it out and eventually it started to feel good."
More than five months later, Erstad is running again, just as he always did – elbows out, shoulders hunched, face burning red – and by appearances directly into the Chicago White Sox's starting lineup.
He's batting .351. It's not the number, though. It's the significance of it, and the 37 pain-free at-bats he's taken. He's healthy for the first time in a year, and the White Sox need him.
"Aaron Rowand gave us an edge two years ago," general manager Kenny Williams said. "That grinder effect, if you will. We missed it last year. I've always thought that Aaron Rowand and Darin Erstad were the poster children for that style of play."
In the season after the White Sox won their World Series and held their parade, there were times the edgiest guy in their dugout was the manager. Plenty of times, actually.
"A lot of people say, 'Oh, he plays hard,'" Ozzie Guillen said. "No, that's the way people should be playing the game. If half the players played the game the way he does, this game would be more fun."
So, Erstad may still be the second-edgiest guy in the White Sox dugout. He took a $1 million contract – with a chance to make $5 million more – to come and save their outfield situation to Jermaine Dye's right, one in which Scott Podsednik is just now back on the field after hernia surgery and Brian Anderson had a fairly disastrous rookie season.
He's been playing center field and batting lead off, playing more than anybody, chasing the final few inches of recovery, and, honestly, feeling pretty good about it. He chose the White Sox over a hard free-agency push from the Florida Marlins to be right here, in the game again.
"I have a lot to prove," Erstad said. "I've got to prove that I can do this still. That's all the motivation that I need."
To whom, exactly?
"To myself," he said. "I've had a lot of injury problems. I've worked hard. Just prove to myself I can do it. Again, it boils down to looking yourself in the mirror and being able to live the rest of your life knowing you gave it everything you had."
It'll start, presumably, the same way every day. With the first few steps toward doing what he does.
One, two, three, four, five…