- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 2, 2009

SAN DIEGO | At an early age, Rick and David Eckstein were aware of their current - or future - limitations. Their father, Whitey, saw to that.

He was only 5-foot-9 and his wife, Pat, was 5-3, so Whitey Eckstein didn’t sit around pining for the growth spurt that would change his two boys’ athletic fortunes. He let them know that if they wanted to succeed in baseball, they would have to find a niche.

So the brothers went to work on every element of their games, piling up the hours in the batting cage when they couldn’t add any more inches to their stature, digesting every iota of baseball knowledge they could.

The path took David to the big leagues. It brought Rick to a successful coaching career when an injury ended his playing days at the University of Florida in 1996. And for three days, it has made them the most grateful opponents you’ll find.

Rick Eckstein, the Nationals’ hitting coach, squared off against his brother Monday for the first time since a few stray intrasquad games in high school. As strange as it is for the two to be on opposite sides during the Nationals-Padres series, it has also given them a rare chance to catch up.

“It’s really special,” Rick said. “Seeing him run out on the field and watch him work, so to speak, is pretty neat. To be in the other dugout competing against him, it doesn’t happen all that often.”

As divergent as their career paths have been, there always has been an element of singularity to the brothers’ success. Both are shorter than 5-8 and came into the game at a time when steroids made home runs a virtual prerequisite at all eight fielding positions.

That wouldn’t be the way the Ecksteins did it. They learned at an early age not to cheat the game, and each turned into the consummate baseball rat, with Rick immediately turning to coaching the last year of David’s college career after his injury. David is a shade less than two years younger - a perfect climate to foster sibling rivalry - but there was no animosity about having his older brother as a coach.

“I’ve pretty much coached him his whole life,” Rick said.

Separated by thousands of miles and three time zones, the brothers still talk baseball several times a week, one learning from the other. And it has continued this week, with Rick staying at David’s home on Coronado Island.

Rick has earned rave reviews in his first year as a major league coach for the improvements he has helped create in the Nationals’ offense. David - the 2006 World Series MVP with St. Louis and a two-time champion overall - got his contract extended by the Padres for 2010 two weeks ago.

“I was around Dave a couple years with the Cardinals when I was a field coordinator over there,” interim manager Jim Riggleman said. “At home, they were taught how to play the game and what their strengths and weaknesses were. Just ultimate pros, first-guy-at-the-park, last-guy-to-leave type [of] guys. We’re lucky to have Rick, and they’re lucky to have David.”

That the Nationals are playing the Padres now just means the brothers have a chance to celebrate together.

“It wasn’t like we thought we were going to be something we weren’t,” Rick said. “The philosophy was you hustle everywhere you go. You might not be the biggest, fastest, strongest, but you can be the smartest.”

Note - Riggleman said the Nationals will try to get shortstop Cristian Guzman back in the lineup for Friday’s game against Florida. Guzman is still dealing with bunions on his feet and probably will be reduced to pinch-hitting duty for the remainder of the Padres series. That, combined with Thursday’s day off, has Riggleman hoping Guzman will have enough time to heal.

“He’s still pretty sore,” Riggleman said. “If we can get him the time off, hopefully we can have him back close to full strength [Friday].”

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