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Rangers' Elster becomes iron man from scrap heap Shortstop surprises with bat, glove

Kevin Elster is like the man who came to lunch and stayed for dinner -- 162 days of dinner and then some more for dessert. In this instance, though, Elster's hosts are delighted that he came and ecstatic that he stayed.

Where else would the Texas Rangers have found a shortstop who could drive in 92 runs batting ninth, a major-league record for that spot in the order? Where else could the Rangers have found a shortstop who would commit only 14 errors, none in a club-record stretch of 45 games, while making a league-high 285 putouts?

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So where did the Rangers find this welcome guest? On baseball's scrap heap, that's where.

"The Yankees had him last year and tried to trade him to me," Doug Melvin, the Rangers' general manager, said. "Gene Michael was doing his best selling job on me, telling me he had great hands, soft hands, could turn the double play. He said hitting might be a question mark. I said, 'Stick, that's a report on you.' "

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Melvin didn't bite, but when Elster's brother, Pat, peppered Melvin with faxes and telephone calls last winter, he remembered Michael's scouting report.

"His brother was persistent," Melvin said. "I said if he wants to come in and compete for a job, that shows me something."

That's all Elster was supposed to do: compete for a job, a backup job at that. Benji Gil, a youngster who was emerging as a solid major-leaguer, was going to be the starting shortstop and Elster would sit in the dugout, start a game every now and then, maybe play the last couple of innings occasionally.

But 155 starts later, plus two more in the Rangers' first postseason series, Elster was back in New York last night as a reconstructed star.

"It's nostalgic a little bit, huh?" Elster said.

Five years removed from his days as the Mets' starting shortstop, the 32-year-old Elster was on the other side of the field from the Yankees' club of former Mets: David Cone, Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden.

All four have made comebacks this season -- Cone from an in-season aneurysm, Strawberry from an assortment of travails, Gooden from a season-and-a-half suspension for drug abuse and Elster from a shoulder injury that took four years out of his baseball life.

Elster's injury, suffered in the Mets' sixth game of the 1992 season, so severely limited his playing time -- he played 49 major-league games over four years -- that he very easily could have given up baseball for a career in the real world.

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Why did he stay and struggle to get back to this level?

"The money," he said unashamedly. Then he added: "I was too young and my arm was healthy. I was able to throw the baseball again. Now I feel so loose and strong; it feels better than it ever did."

Perhaps even more remarkable has been his performance with the bat. Elster always was known as a good guy with the glove, but he never dazzled anyone with his bat. This season he easily reached career highs with 24 home runs, 99 RBIs and a .252 batting average.

"There really wasn't any difference," Elster said when asked why he hit so well. "I'm playing every day now. I hadn't played every day since '91, and even then I was hurt a little bit."

But 24 home runs?

"I hit 10 a year and I was a young kid," Elster said of his tenure with the Mets, which produced only one 10-homer season. "We're allowed to grow up. I'd like to think this is what I'd be doing if I was still with the Mets. I've gotten bigger and I've gotten stronger and I've gotten smarter."

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And 99 RBIs?

"Again, I drove in 50 runs," he said, referring to a 55-RBI effort in 1989. "I think I still hold the Mets' record for shortstops. It wasn't like I was anemic. Everybody likes to think I was. The problem was I was so highly touted everybody wanted me to drive in 100 in my rookie year. That was a big problem."

But isn't he at least impressed with what he has done, and maybe just a little surprised?

"Obviously, it's been a great, great, great year for me," Elster said. "But as far as being able to explain it, I just don't like to explain it like there's some kind of, you know, the moons are aligned right."

Elster developed a problem late this season. His hitting and production fell off sharply. He registered his 94th RBI Aug. 28 in the Rangers' 133rd game, then drove in only five runs in the final 29 games, including two runs in the last game of the season. He also batted only .208 in the last two months after batting .276 the first four months.

"Playing every day for the first time in five years kind of wore me out," Elster said. "Then every game was like a playoff game for us. We had to win like every game because we were getting our butt kicked and Seattle was gaining on us."

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Nevertheless, his 155 starts at shortstop were the second most in club history and represented a comeback unprecedented in major-league history. Rangers' research turned up no other position player who has played in 90 or more games each of four successive seasons, then played in as few as 49 games total the next four years, then played in 157 games the following season and hit as many as 20 home runs and drove in as many as 90 runs.

And to think Elster would have been satisfied being a backup infielder if Gil had not undergone back surgery. "Sure, absolutely," he said. "That's what the thought was going in. I can be valuable in that role, but when the opportunity arose, I took it."

Pub Date: 10/03/96


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