It's difficult for an outside observer to evaluate whether a baseball player is an overachiever. You can see how much a player hustles when you watch a game. But unless you play with a guy every day, you don't really know how hard he works. So it's tough to tell, from the outside looking in, how much of an overachiever he actually is.
With that disclaimer aside, here's my list of the five biggest overachievers in the game today. If I took the time to speak with players and managers on all 30 major-league teams, my list would probably grow. But for now, this is my list, based on my observations.
These five are listed in alphabetical order -- not as a top-five list, because I don't know which of these players has worked harder than the others (for the reasons cited above):
Rod Beck | Reliever | San Diego Padres
Beck isn't blessed with an overpowering fastball, but he succeeds with guts and guile. The Padres picked him up last season after he hadn't pitched in the majors in more than a year, and he went 20-for-20 in save opportunities with a 1.78 ERA. Then he left spring training for unspecified personal reasons. The Padres hope to have him back soon.
David Eckstein | Shortstop | Anaheim Angels
Eckstein has limited ability compared to glamorous shortstops like Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra and Miguel Tejada. He lacks height, range and a great arm.
But he was the leadoff hitter and starting shortstop on the 2002 World Series champions.
But his location is superb and he gets the most out of his ability. Twice he's been a 20-game winner.
As the leadoff hitter and catalyst for the defending World Series champion Marlins, he understands his role and does what his team needs him to do.
He's a reliable leadoff hitter who gets on base and knows how to get in scoring position (he leads the majors with 13 stolen bases).
Rounds 1 and 2: Red Sox
Although it's early in the season, much can be learned from the first two series between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, in which the Sox won six of seven games (including a three-game sweep at Yankee Stadium this past weekend).
First, let's remember that while the Yankees defeated the Red Sox in the ALCS last year, Boston was within six outs of going to the World Series -- and the only difference was the manager's decision to leave Pedro Martinez on the mound late in Game 7. I don't want to pick on former Sox skipper Grady Little too much, but his decision is the reason the Yankees went to the Series and the Red Sox went home last October.
When the 2004 season began, after a busy offseason for both teams, I felt that the Red Sox had the edge -- yes, even with New York's acquisition of Alex Rodriguez. In fact, when Boston tried to trade for A-Rod before the Yanks got him, I thought such an addition wasn't necessary because the Sox had already surpassed the Yanks in the talent department.
Now that the Red Sox have played so well against the Yankees, they have the psychological edge, too. Not only are the Sox the better team, but now they also believe they're the better team.
Boston has finished second to New York in the AL East for six straight years. The last time the Sox won the division was 1995, so they've been chasing the Yankees for almost a decade. After Boston's convincing success so far this season, the Yankees are chasing the Red Sox as the Sox have chased them. The shoe's on the other foot now.
Having said that, the Red Sox can't afford to become complacent. It's still April. A four-game lead on the third-place Yanks -- two games on the Baltimore Orioles -- is far from huge, especially this early. It just seems bigger because of the way Boston has dominated.
Two of Boston's biggest offseason acquisitions, starter Curt Schilling and closer Keith Foulke, have paid dividends so far. Foulke is 5-for-5 in save opportunities with a 0.64 ERA, while Schilling is 2-1 with a 4.18 ERA (it was 2.66 before a rough outing in his last start).
An added benefit of Schilling's presence is that he'll push Pedro Martinez. Pedro is competitive, and he wants to be the No. 1 guy in the rotation.
While Foulke is a major improvement over last year, when the Sox started the season with a closer-by-committee, New York's Mariano Rivera (6-for-6 saves, 0.75 ERA) is still the best closer in baseball. In postseason play, you can make a strong case that he's the best ever.
But closer is the only area where the Yankees have the advantage on paper. The Red Sox have the edge elsewhere, especially in hitting and starting pitching.
The Yankees continue to have question marks in the rotation. Can Mike Mussina (1-4, 6.55 ERA) still be a No. 1 starter? Can Jose Contreras (0-2, 10.64) step forward and live up to his potential? Only Javier Vazquez (2-2, 2.63) and Kevin Brown (3-0, 2.12) have pitched well thus far for New York.
On offense, it's easy to see who's hit the best so far. The Yankees' supposedly formidable lineup is batting an AL-worst .221.
A-Rod has struggled, with a .253 average, three home runs and just six RBI in 20 games. Gary Sheffield, the other big bat added this past offseason, has hit just one home run. And Derek Jeter (.169) is in an 0-for-28 funk, the worst slump of his career. The lone bright spot for New York has been catcher Jorge Posada, who has a league-leading seven homers and 19 RBI.
Meanwhile, after leading the majors with a .289 average last season, the Sox aren't exactly hitting the cover off the ball (.251). But it's been enough to beat the Yanks in six of seven games.
Ultimately, A-Rod and Sheffield will heat up, and the Yankees' offense will be better than last year. But, as I see it, Boston's offense is much better. And make no mistake, there is extra pressure on the Yankees because of the A-Rod acquisition.
The AL East rivals will meet 12 more times. Expect more intrigue, with a postseason electricity in the air for each game.
Well-deserved honor for Charlie Sifford
As a baseball analyst for ESPN, I naturally discuss baseball in my ESPN.com columns. But this week I also want to address some significant golf news.
Charlie Sifford has been chosen to be inducted in the World Golf Hall of Fame. Sifford is the first African-American to be so honored. He will be inducted Nov. 15, along with Tom Kite, Japan's Isao Aoki and Canadian Marlene Stewart Streit.
Sifford and I have become close friends over the years. We've played golf together and enjoyed good conversations. Sifford's election to golf's Hall reminds us of his long struggle simply to participate in the PGA Tour.
Sifford was the first black to be granted a PGA Tour card and, in 1961, the first to break through the PGA's Caucasian-only clause that all golfers on the PGA Tour had to sign. He also was the first black to win a PGA Tour event.
I love golf, and I'm a big fan of the PGA Tour. Still, when I think of what Sifford, Lee Elder, Teddy Rhodes and other great African-American golfers of their era endured -- and how the PGA banned them from the Tour -- it disturbs me.
Sometimes, when I watch golf on TV, a commentator refers to the honor of the game and the tradition of golf as a gentlemen's sport, where players call their own penalties and emphasize fair play.
But when I hear about the honor of the game, I think of Charlie Sifford, and how he (and others) were prevented from joining the tour for so long. How honorable is that? How honorable was it to keep him from pursuing his dream? He loved golf -- all he wanted was a chance to prove he could play with the best (which he did).
If you've had a chance to read Sifford's book, "Just Let Me Play," you know how rough his journey was. After Tiger Woods won The Masters in 1997 (his first major), he paid tribute to Sifford, Elder, Rhodes and others who blazed the trail before him.
In some ways, Sifford's road was tougher than Jackie Robinson's. Pee Wee Reese, Robinson's teammate on the Brooklyn Dodgers, gave Robinson support when he became the first African-American to play major-league baseball in 1947. But no one supported Sifford. He was by himself.
I've always said that you can't live in the past. You only use the past as a reference point to learn from. I don't hold any grudges against golfers who signed the Caucasian-only clause. Unfortunately, that was the societal climate then.
But the past is a reference point and a barometer for how tough Sifford was. Through all he endured, he held his head high and persevered until he gained admission into the PGA Tour.
I only hope that commentators and writers do their homework before they offer blanket praise regarding the honor of golf as a gentlemen's game. I hope they think of Charlie Sifford before they bestow such accolades.
An analyst for ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball, Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan won back-to-back World Series and MVP awards with the Reds in 1975 and '76. He contributes a weekly column to ESPN.com.