SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Darin Erstad came of baseball age in the Arizona Fall League. Wednesday night, Erstad came full circle as the newest inductee into the AFL's Hall of Fame.
Erstad, approaching his third season as head baseball coach at his alma mater, the University of Nebraska, still looked in playing shape as he paced the first-base dugout in slacks and a polo shirt shortly before the start of the Salt River-Scottsdale game. And, no wonder -- the former two-time All-Star, who channeled hard-nosed competitors of an earlier era during a 14-year career, still is only 39.
"We're pleased to add his name to the elite group already in the Hall of Fame," said AFL Director Steve Cobb in introducing Erstad to a Scottsdale Stadium crowd that included a large contingent from the local Nebraska Alumni Association. "We've had over 4,500 players in the Arizona Fall League, and he accomplished things none of the others have."
How true. Erstad earned Gold Gloves at three different positions (left field, center field and first base), was an anchor on the Angels' lone World Series championship in 2002, and in 2000 authored the most remarkable overlooked season in recent history. Erstad had 240 hits that season, hit .355, drove in 100 runs as a leadoff batter and had 77 multi-hit games.
Digest that. In the most recent season, no one in the Majors had as many as 200 hits and Matt Carpenter had the league-best with 63 multi-hit games.
But statistics, in which Erstad never had an interest even during his playing days, are not what made him extraordinary.
Bill Stoneman, his former general manager with the Angels who came to participate in Wednesday night's ceremony, quickly sized up Erstad upon taking the team's reins after the 1999 campaign.
"Everyone knows about the five tools you always look for in a player," said Stoneman, still a senior advisor to Angels owner Arte Moreno. "But the players themselves also know about two other tools that are equally important -- what's in your heart, and what's in your head.
"I was quick to figure out Darin was someone with the character to help bring a team together. He was a player's player."
A prep legend in his native North Dakota and a collegiate icon in Nebraska -- he left as owner of the school career hit record and was a nationally-ranked punter on the Cornhuskers' 1994 national champions -- Erstad had "no idea how many Halls of Fame this is for me; I don't keep track of that stuff."
But this one is special. He had suited up for the Tempe Rafters in 1995, less than a year after punting in Lincoln and with only 131 professional at-bats on his resume.
"This was an eye-opener for me," Erstad recalled. "I'd never competed at the level the Fall League presented, and it gave me confidence."
Seven months later, he was in Anaheim, playing center field for the Angels.
That experience, and the memory of that experience, made a lasting impression on Erstad who, on Wednesday night, again was extraordinary.
He gave the most impassioned speech veterans of these AFL Hall of Fame inductions -- Erstad became the 34th member -- could recall.
He began by obligingly noting being "honored and humbled," then turned his attention to the young Rafters and Scorpions players draped over the railings of both dugouts.
"You're probably tired, ready to play this game and ready to go home," said Erstad, alluding to this being the final week of AFL play. "When I played here, I had no clue what I had gotten myself into. But the confidence I got sped up my process. You guys here have an opportunity, and you never know what can happen -- and it can happen fast. The Fall League can speed it up.
"I want to leave you with two thoughts. One, right now you're all so into building up your stats, but when you're all done and you're out of the game, no one's going to remember what you hit. But everyone will know if you were good teammate.
"And, two, when you're through and you're walking off the field for the final time, do not ever forget how hard this game is."
People who watched him won't ever forget how hard Erstad played this game.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer.