January 8, 2010

His Star Shone As Brightly As That Baseball Card

PITTSBURGH, Pa. / January 8, 2010

The 1997 Pirates were an awesomely random collection of players, which comprised one of the worst teams ever to contend for a playoff spot. Hey, as a Pirates blog we have to use whatever superlatives we can come up with. Twenty-one pitchers took the hill and none were over 30 years old. Meanwhile, the team apparently chose its shortstops by opening a pack of 1988 Topps. No fewer than three Pirate greats played between Joe Randa and Rony Womack that year: Dale Sveum, Shawon Dunston, and our man of the day, Kevin Elster.

Kevin first came up with the hard-partying late 1980s Mets. Proclaimed a future star after hitting .310 in AAA, he alas was not as fortunate at the plate in Shea as he was at the New York bars after games.

"If I was on any other team, I'd be stuck out there every day," said a .210-htting Elster in 1989. "But I've got a manager who loves offense."

His glove kept him with the Mets for seven years before he became a journeyman, released by five teams in 26 months from 1993-95. Elster's career appeared to be over in the spring of 1996. But he made the Rangers in spring training as a nonroster invitee and drove in 99 runs that year. Though he was 32 and still had a career average of .228, the Pirates signed him to a $1.65 million contract for 1997 - making him the second highest paid player on the team.

On Opening Day, Elster hit a two-run double to score the winning runs. He was a sensation, batting fifth every night in a young and talented (definitely young, anyway) Bucs lineup. Though he still couldn't hit for average, this didn't stop him from producing runs. On May 15, his two-run homer completed a comeback that vaulted the Pirates into first place at 21-18. At that point he led the team in home runs and RBI. Little did he know his Pirate career would end the next evening.

The Pirates got a strong outing from Jon Lieber but trailed the Marlins 2-1 when Mark Johnson singled to lead off the seventh. Pirates manager Gene Lamont, no doubt trying to outmanage Marlins skipper Jim Leyland on Leyland's homecoming night, ordered his slugging shortstop to bunt. Lamont would sacrifice more than just the out, as Elster collided at first base with the Marlins' Kurt Abbott and broke his wrist. He was proclaimed out for 4-6 weeks but never returned that season, leading the Pirates to decline his 1998 option.

Kevin Elster's offense and defense helped propel the 1997 Pirates to the hot start that led to the last pennant race Three Rivers Stadium would see. He also "brought Hootie and the Blowfish into the Pirates clubhouse" according to the Post-Gazette. It was the best .225-hitting quarter season a Pirates shortstop ever will have. For that, Kevin Elster is truly a Pirate great.

UPDATE: Kevin Elster was recently named shortstop on the All-Time Mets Hottie Team. Would he beat out Jack Wilson for that spot with the Pirates?

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