A Diamond In Orange County

Tempe, Ariz.--Out here where the desert sun almost makes the dry air crinkle like cellophane, the best baseball player you know next to nothing about is preparing for his fourth full season. His team does its spring training in Diablo Stadium. That figures. The Angels have had a diabolical history.

Born in 1961--22 managers ago--the Los Angeles, then California, now Anaheim Angels are one of only six teams (with Detroit, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Montreal and Tampa Bay) that have not even made the playoffs in the last 13 seasons. They have never been to a World Series. They were one pitch away in 1986, but the pitch became a two-out, two-strike, two-run Red Sox home run.

It sometimes seems as though the Angels play 162 road games because scads of people who come to their 81 home games in Orange County, home of transplants, used to live where the visiting team is from, and they root for it. Last summer, when the Angels were doing well enough to dream of playing in October, an Angels official wistfully wondered, "If we win the World Series, where do we have our victory parade?" Good question. What is Orange County's downtown? Disneyland?

Darin Erstad, 26-year-old centerfielder, is determined to make the victory parade a more than hypothetical problem. Last year he produced a number--240 hits--that should have seized the attention of numbers-obsessed baseball fans. Even those mellow Southern Californians who trickle in around the third inning and in the seventh begin heading for the parking lot. Only 11 players in the 20th century got at least 240 hits in a season. Three of those (Bill Terry, Chuck Klein and Babe Herman) did so in the notoriously aberrant season of 1930, when the juiced ball produced absurd numbers. (Nine teams batted over .300.) Since 1930 only two players have accumulated at least 240 hits--Wade Boggs in 1985 and Erstad. To reach George Sisler's season record of 257, set in 1920, Erstad would have to hit .367 in 700 at-bats. In 2000 he hit .355 in 676 at-bats.

On opening night last year he went three for four against the Yankees. He reached base safely in each of his first 27 games. He set a major league record with 48 hits in April. He got his 100th hit in his 61st game, the fastest spring to 100 since (you probably knew this) Heinie Manush of the 1934 Senators. He reached 200 hits in fewer games (132) than anyone since, as you recall, Joe Medwick of the 1935 Cardinals. He became the first lead-off man ever to have 100 RBIs. Think about that. In every game, the first time he batted there was no one on base to drive in. He had more three- and four-hit games (30) than no-hit games (29).

Baseball people torture numbers imaginatively. Divide a player's number of putouts and assists by his number of defensive chances. Erstad's result: .953, highest among major league outfielders. He committed three errors in 362 chances. His defensive excellence won him a Gold Glove.

So, he had a crackerjack year. Trouble is, he had it in Orange County, so who knew? A well-brought-up young man, he politely says, "I'm playing big league baseball. I don't care where I'm playing." He wants to play in October, so he has spent the winter further fine-tuning his 6 feet 2 and 200 pounds. He has reduced his body fat from 8.5 percent to 7 percent. You do not want to know yours.

He has the reddish-blond hair of the Scandinavians who settled the northern plains. He is a descendant of Vikings, playing on the shores of the sundown sea--the Pacific. Which he is not. Pacific, that is.

Not until the late 1980s did sunny California supplant Pennsylvania as the state that had produced the most major leaguers. (California's climate provides abundant opportunities for athletes to be athletic; for decades Pennsylvania provided players with an incentive--escape from the mines and dark satanic mills.) Erstad is only the 12th major leaguer born in North Dakota. In high school Erstad was an all-state selection in football, hockey and track. Not in baseball. His high school had no baseball team.

At the University of Nebraska he was punter and kicker on the 1994 national championship team. His coach (now congressman) Tom Osborne remembers his "intensity." His teammates mention the same thing. The Angels' hitting coach, Mickey Hatcher, thinks Erstad resembles one of Hatcher's teammates on the 1988 world champion Dodgers--that year's MVP, Kirk Gibson, former Michigan State football player. Erstad's "focus" (baseballspeak for monomania) energizes but also worries those around him who doubt that you can play a 162-game season with the ferocity that adrenaline-crazed football players bring to 16 games.

The Baltimore Orioles' Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver used to say, "This ain't a football game--we do this every day." Another baseball axiom: "You can't play the game with your teeth gritted." Erstad does, at least figuratively speaking. When manager Mike Scioscia (another former Dodger trying to assert a new baseball supremacy in California's Southland) gets to Diablo Stadium, sometimes before 7 a.m., Erstad is there.

Fifty years ago, the 798 square miles of sleepy Orange County were planted thick not with people (population was 280,000) but with orange groves. Today it is a teeming (population more than 3 million), polyglot (26 percent Hispanic, 12 percent Asian and Pacific Islander) monument to American mobility and immigration. Thirty-three percent of the population was born outside of California, 24 percent outside the United States. Two years ago the four most common surnames of Orange County home buyers were Nguyen, Kim, Lee and Tran.

The county is full of centrifugal forces. It needs a center--if not a geographic one, an emotional one. Perhaps it could be touched by an Angel. A Norwegian-American from North Dakota cheered on by Nguyens in the bleachers. Only in America.