Ballplayers have never been one of North Dakota's chief exports.
Gunslingers, O.K. Painted-canyon postcards, sure. But no one would
call the state a field of dreams -- at least not until Darin
Erstad sprang from the plains to remind folks of another natural
long-ball hitter from those parts, a fellow who did away with Babe
Ruth's season home run record.
Erstad, a 6'2" leftfielder with lightning bat speed and a knack
for getting himself noticed, is widely expected to be the first
collegian chosen in baseball's June amateur draft. As of Monday he
was hitting .470 for Nebraska with 12 home runs and 57 RBIs,
threatening school records in all three categories. Should he
reach the majors, he will have completed a rise from obscurity
worthy of fable.
The closest major league city to Erstad's home base of Jamestown
is Minneapolis, a six-hour drive. To date, only one famous athlete
has come from the Flickertail State: Roger Maris, who came out of
Fargo to hit 61 home runs for the New York Yankees in 1961. Before
this year Erstad had already earned some recognition as a
blue-chip ballplayer -- but of another sort. He won the job of
punter and long-range field goal kicker on the Cornhuskers'
football team last season after he and his baseball buddies made
an audition tape of him kicking and punting and sent it to coach
Tom Osborne. He finished 14th in the nation in punting with a
42.6-yard average, and converted three of eight field goal
attempts. Moreover, he is the proud owner of a national
Growing up, Erstad was a four-sport virtuoso, starring in
football, baseball, hockey and track. He played so many sports
mostly because there was little else to do. ``I wasn't exactly
going to nightclubs,'' Erstad says.
Since Jamestown High didn't field a baseball team, Erstad, who
bats and throws lefthanded, played American Legion ball. When he
was 17, four pro scouts showed up to watch him play in the state
tournament. The following spring 20 pro scouts came to see him
play. But among Division I colleges only Creighton and Nebraska
recruited him. Steve Gillispie, a Nebraska assistant who coached
him one summer in American Legion ball, raved to Cornhusker coach
John Sanders about the raw North Dakota kid, and Sanders offered
Erstad a scholarship sight unseen. Nine months later Erstad turned
down the New York Mets, who drafted him in the 13th round, to go
The consensus among pro scouts is that Erstad can hit for power
and average as well as run, field, throw and, quips Sanders,
``hang around in a phone booth with an S on his chest.'' He
lived up to most of that billing last summer when he batted .340
and was named MVP of the Cape Cod League -- perhaps the most
prestigious summer league for collegians -- despite leaving two
weeks early to report for fall football practice.
Any hope that Erstad, a junior, would come back to Nebraska's
football team next fall vanished when he announced recently that
he plans to sign with the major league team that drafts him in
June. He has been patient with his dream of playing in the majors
long enough. Says Erstad, ``It's my time.''
-- Sally Jenkins