December 23, 2004: David Eckstein signs with the Cardinals

When David Eckstein signed with the Cardinals on December 23, 2004, he couldn’t help but think of his last visit to St. Louis almost 2 ½ years earlier.

The second-year major-league shortstop was leading off for the Angels on June 18, 2002, the same day the Cardinals were hosting a pregame memorial service in honor of broadcaster Jack Buck. Tragically, that game proved to be Darryl Kile’s final start, as the Cardinals right-hander passed away four days later.

“Just seeing that, seeing all those fans so close to the team, so supportive, and being right there to feel it all – it stays with you,” Eckstein said. “It’s an unbelievable feeling. St. Louis has such a rich history … and here’s an opportunity to go there and play for them. It’s just a great, great fit.”[1]

One week after Edgar Renteria signed a four-year, $40-million contract with the Red Sox, the Cardinals signed Eckstein to a three-year, $10.25-million deal to become their new shortstop and leadoff hitter. Eckstein became available after the Angels signed free-agent shortstop Orlando Cabrera.

“David was the player we focused on right away after Cabrera signed,” said John Mozeliak, the Cardinals’ assistant general manager. “Given the current free-agent market at shortstop, it pushed salaries higher, but we still felt this was a value signing for us.”[2]

Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty, who was in Hawaii on vacation, initiated contract negotiations. He called Eckstein’s agent, Ryan Gleichowski, who was on a holiday cruise and had to be on land for his cell phone to work. Once Gleichowski was docked in Cozumel, Mexico, he and associate Marc Pollack finalized the work on a three-year contract that included a $250,000 signing bonus and annual salaries of $2.25 million, $3.25 million, and $4.5 million.[3]

“They were very aggressive,” Eckstein said. “They were pretty much the first team to call, and (Thursday) it really took off. … It was clear that this was a good fit. The best fit.”[4]

Eckstein, a former University of Florida walk-on, had been drafted by the Red Sox in the 19th round of the 1997 draft and was selected by the Angels off waivers in August 2000. By 2001, Eckstein was in the majors, batting .285/.355/.357 and placing fourth in the American League Rookie of the Year voting.

In four seasons with the Angels, Eckstein hit .278/.347/.353. In 2002, the 5-foot-6, 170-pound shortstop hit three grand slams during the regular season and helped the Angels win the World Series, going 9-for-29 (.310) with six runs scored and three RBIs against the Giants.

In 2004, Eckstein hit .276/.339/.332 with two homers, 35 RBIs, and 16 stolen bases. He was the hardest player in the American League to whiff, striking out just 49 times in 566 at-bats, a rate of one every 13 at-bats.

Though Eckstein didn’t have a strong arm at shortstop, he committed just six errors in 138 games in 2004 to lead major-league shortstops with a .988 fielding percentage.

“When people see me, I don’t really look like your typical pro athlete, but it means I always have to prove myself,” Eckstein said. “No matter what the situation, you have to prove yourself. I don’t want to lose that edge.”[5]

The Cardinals were counting on that edge to make Eckstein a new fan favorite.

“We felt this was the guy, the perfect fit for our club for a lot of reasons,” Jocketty said. “For his personality, for the way he goes about playing the game. He’s a gamer through and through. He’s the kind of player St. Louis will embrace, and I think he will become a cult hero with our fans. He’s a hustler.”[6]

Former Cardinals infielder Rex Hudler, who had become an Angels broadcaster after his playing days ended, was familiar with the kind of hard-nosed player Cardinals fans adored, having been one himself.

“Put it this way, I named my son after him,” Hudler said. “David Scott Hudler. And now ‘Eck’ is headed to St. Louis. It’s a perfect fit. It will be a beautiful relationship. He’s going to be revered as the new Huckleberry Finn of St. Louis and Missouri.”[7]

Eckstein enjoyed the best seasons of his career in St. Louis. Taking over as the Cardinals’ new leadoff hitter, Eckstein hit .294/.363/.395 in 2005. His eight home runs matched his career high and included three grand slams (including two in back-to-back games), while his 61 RBIs was just two shy of his best season. He also scored 90 runs, stole 11 bases, and was selected to the all-star game for the first time in his career.

That postseason, Eckstein hit .385 (5 for 13) in the NLDS against the Padres with a home run and four RBIs. Facing the Astros in a six-game NLCS, Eckstein went just 4 for 20, but scored five runs and drove in two more.

Eckstein earned all-star honors again in 2006 on his way to a .292/.350/.344 batting line. Though he struggled in the NLDS and NLCS, batting just 8 for 41 (.191), he came alive in the World Series. After collecting just one hit in his first 11 World Series at-bats, he went 7 for his next 11 to finish the series with a .364 average. In Game 4, he went 4-for-5 with three doubles to spark the Cardinals’ 5-4 win. Eckstein added two more hits and drove in a pair of runs in the decisive Game 5 victory.

Eckstein played one more season in St. Louis before signing as a free agent with the Blue Jays. In three seasons with the Cardinals, he hit .297/.357/.375 with 216 runs scored, 13 homers, and 115 RBIs.

The remainder of Eckstein’s career took him from Toronto to Arizona and San Diego. After Eckstein sat out the 2011 season, the Cardinals invited him to throw out the first pitch ahead of World Series Game 6. He officially retired in January 2012 with a career .280 batting average, 701 runs scored, and 123 stolen bases.

“My passion is baseball,” Eckstein said. “I’ll be around it, always, in some sort. At the end of the day, I know this: whatever I decide to do is going to be what’s best for me and my family. I can’t tell right now what that is. Life always throws you curveballs.”[8]

Enjoy this post? Find similar stories listed by decade or by player.

[1] Derrick Goold, “Cards sign SS Eckstein,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 24, 2004.

[2] “Cardinals pencil in Eckstein to play shortstop,” Belleville News-Democrat, December 24, 2004.

[3] Derrick Goold, “Cards sign SS Eckstein,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 24, 2004.

[4] Derrick Goold, “Cards sign SS Eckstein,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 24, 2004.

[5] Derrick Goold, “Cards sign SS Eckstein,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 24, 2004.

[6] Derrick Goold, “Cards sign SS Eckstein,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 24, 2004.

[7] Bernie Miklasz, “In Eckstein, Cards get a big return in small package,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 25, 2004.

[8] Derrick Goold, “Most Valuable Person,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 28, 2011.

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