If you’re a long-time reader of the blog, you know by now that well before I started covering this team, I came to games as a fan. The first year I began coming to Waterfront Park regularly was 1999. I was 16 years old, and I didn’t know it at the time, but I was being treated to a middle infield duo that would both go on to big things at the big league level.
Both shortstop Adam Everett and second baseman David Eckstein went on to have long MLB careers after their Thunder days were behind them, and both have ultimately decided to hang up their spikes this off-season.
At the time, Everett was certainly the more highly touted of the two. Drafted in 12th overall by Boston in 1998, it took him just one season to advance to Double-A, where he served as Trenton’s full-time shortstop.
“I think at the time, I was more surprised at who had drafted me, especially with them having Nomar,” Everett told me in an exclusive chat last season.
“I didn’t really know how professional baseball worked, and obviously I got traded within the next year. I was excited at the time I got drafted. I didn’t really think about the pressure (of going in the first round), I was very naive and I think that helped a lot.”
Everett, who was traded to Houston after that season in exchange for Carl (no relation, thankfully) Everett, would catch on quick with the Astros.
After winning an Olympic gold medal with Team USA in Sydney in 2000, Everett made his big league debut with Houston the following season and spent seven of his eleven big league seasons with them, playing in the World Series for them in 2005. Following his run with the Astros, the defensive whiz bounced around the American League for unremarkable stints with the Twins, Tigers and Indians. A career .242 hitter, Everett’s glove kept him in the lineup, as evidenced by him leading the National League in Range Factor/9 as a SS in 2003 and Defensive WAR in 2006.
“Even after two or three years in the league, I never really thought about staying and playing here as long as I could or anything like that,” he said.
“I honestly was just taking it day to day and year to year. The next you think you know, you look up and I’ve got eight years and some change in the big leagues. I’ve had a great career and I’m excited about what I’ve done and what I’ve accomplished. I’m obviously not as decorated as say, a Derek Jeter or some of these other guys, but I’m just enjoying myself and I’m getting to the point where I can pass some of my knowledge on to some younger guys.”
Everett has since been hired by the Cleveland Indians — who released him midway through the 2011 season –to do just that as a special assistant to baseball operations. The soon-to-be 35-year-old is set to help out infielders at Cleveland’s minor and major league camps this spring.
But it all seemingly started in Trenton, and Everett recalled his time as a key component on the winningest team in Thunder history.
“I just remember having a great time, and I remember us winning a lot of games,” he said. “It was one of those times where I really didn’t know much about professional baseball and how everything worked, so you just kind of grinded it out and kept playing hard and thought,’ Well, if this is what professional ball is like, winning all the time, this is going to be great.'”
“DeMarlo Hale was our manager and Steve Braun was our hitting coach. It was me, Eckstein and Rafael Betancourt in a two-bedroom apartment. All three of us played in the big leagues…it was a lot of memories, man. Just a lot of, I guess more than anything, learning how to win. Going to the playoffs for the first time, I felt like the whole year was a great experience.”
Everett played in 98 games with the Thunder in 1999, hitting .263 with ten home run and 44 RBI but as the year wore on, it was his double play counterpart who started getting more and more of the attention.
David Eckstein was just 5-foot-6 and at age 24, was probably too old to be considered a prospect at Double-A. But he made both of those stats irrelevant with a campaign that saw him lead the team with a .313 batting average while posting an incredible 89:45 BB/K ratio. But while his incredible eye at the plate was what stood out on the back of his baseball card, what anyone who saw him play back then will truly take away from his was his hustle.
David Eckstein ran everywhere. Busted his tail down the line every time like the game was on the line, gave everything he had for a ground ball…heck, he sprinted out of the dugout when the team got introduced.
“It was a thrill,” Eckstein told me in 2008 of playing for the Thunder. “Like you said, we had a great club. There were a lot of big leaguers from that club. It was just fun to play on because we went out there, and it felt like we won every night.
It was hustle that was going to get Eckstein to the big leagues, and that’s exactly what happened two years later. But he never played for the Red Sox either. Boston tried to sneak him through waivers, and the Angels quickly scooped him up. Like Everett, Eckstein was disappointed he never got to play at the big league level for the team that drafted him.
“The biggest thing about it, is it was very disappointing in the sense that when you’re with a club, you want to find a way to help them win a World Series,” he said.
“So the fact that I did nothing for them, to me that’s where I was disappointed in myself in that sense. But now you look back, and it all worked out. It was a good situation.
After four productive years there, including winning his first World Series with the Angels in 2002, he signed as a free agent with the St. Louis Cardinals and that’s where he really started to make a name for himself. The diminutive middle infielder made his first big league All-Star team in 2005 and reached the postseason again, but ultimately was eliminated by Everett’s Astros in the NLCS that year.
He got back to both the next season, making his second and final All-Star team and advancing to the postseason again with the Cardinals. This time, however, he was perhaps the most unlikely hero in World Series history, batting .364 with four RBI in five games en route to being named the World Series MVP.
“It was definitely a thrill,” Eckstein said. “The biggest thing was winning another World Series, that’s why you play this game. So just getting that extra honor, it was kind of unbelievable. I really didn’t think about it. I still don’t think about it that much. It’s one of those things where when I’m done playing, it’ll mean a little bit more.”
Eckstein would play one more season with St. Louis, hitting a career-high .309. The little man who did the little things right — he led the league in HBP and sacrifice hits twice, and three times had the best fielding percentage for his position — split his 2008 season between the Diamondbacks and Blue Jays and played his last two seasons with the San Diego Padres. He didn’t play last season, despite having offers to do so, and has officially retired this off-season.