- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 25, 2009

VIERA, Fla. - Rick Eckstein never played in the major leagues. He never played in the minor leagues. The pinnacle of his playing career came in 1996, when he got 75 at-bats at the University of Florida.

His batting average before an injury ended his dreams of playing: .200.

So how is it that the diminutive 35-year-old, who needs to stand on his tiptoes to see into a batting cage, has not only earned the title of Washington Nationals hitting coach, but also the respect of his entire roster of major leaguers?

“That’s probably the question a lot of people have,” infielder Kory Casto said. “And coming in, if you don’t know the guy, you might wonder that. But after talking to him for five minutes, you wouldn’t ever think of that again.

“He’s by far one of the hardest-working coaches I’ve ever met. He knows what he’s doing.”

Up and down the clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium, Nationals position players are echoing those sentiments. Eckstein has been working firsthand with most of them for only a few weeks, but he’s already made such a strong impression that he’s earned multiple nicknames.

Outfielder Ryan Langerhans calls Eckstein “The Guru.” Casto refers to him as “The Hitting Whisperer.”

Those two have had a chance to work with Eckstein longer than most others in the organization, because Eckstein spent last season as hitting coach at Class AAA Columbus.

Langerhans was a career .265 hitter in the minors before meeting Eckstein. Last season he hit .310 with an .864 OPS. Casto’s career minor league average was .270. His numbers last year: a .308 batting average and .881 OPS.

Now the Nationals hope Eckstein, older brother of Padres shortstop David Eckstein, can work the same magic on a big league lineup that was among baseball’s least productive in 2008. Promoted from within as a key member of Washington’s revamped coaching staff, the determined Eckstein is in the major leagues at last.

Not that he looks at this opportunity any differently than those he’s had before.

“To be honest with you, every day I’ve shown up in my life as a professional coach, I’ve always been in the big leagues in my mind,” he said. “That’s the way I prepare. So it really doesn’t matter who I’m working with. It’s the mindset that I take into that job.”

Eckstein’s approach hasn’t changed at any point in his coaching career, which dates back to the late 1990s at Florida, where he joined the staff upon graduating with a degree in health and human performance. It served him well during stops at Seminole (Fla.) Community College, the University of Georgia, Class A Vermont, Class AA Harrisburg and Class AAA towns New Orleans, Louisville and Columbus.

It’s also landed him spots on the coaching staff for the U.S. team that participated in last summer’s Beijing Olympics, the inaugural World Baseball Classic and other international competitions.

Eckstein’s hitting philosophy is simple: Every player has what he likes to call an “A swing” in him, the swing that produces the most impact. His job, then, is to get each of his hitters to find that swing every time he steps to the plate.

“Discover what that feels like,” he said. “And then lock in that feel.”

For some players, that requires only minor tweaks. Ryan Zimmerman hasn’t changed his swing since he first started picking up a bat as a child. Eckstein isn’t about to tell him to do something different now.

“I think he does a good job of having a key for each person,” Zimmerman said.

“He’s definitely against the ‘Everyone hit the same way’ approach. He’s for everyone hitting their own way. He adapts to you and gets you where you need to be.”

In some cases, though, an overhaul is necessary. Nick Johnson, who hit .290 the last time he played a full season, has revamped his swing since meeting with Eckstein and realizing he had been doing things wrong his whole life.

“My thinking over the years has been completely backward,” said Johnson, who says he now swings more freely and with more confidence.

The varying methods Eckstein uses for each of his hitters is a central focus of his coaching technique. Some hitting coaches try to get all of their players to follow the same rules. Eckstein doesn’t.

“The goal for everyone is ‘four,’ ” he said. “For one guy, that might mean two plus two. For another guy, that might mean three plus one. For another, it might be five minus one. But as long as everyone gets to the same spot in the end, it doesn’t matter how they got there.”

Perhaps the same can be said about different coaches’ paths to the big leagues. Some were All-Star players who got a job on a major league staff as soon as they retired. Others worked their way up through the minor leagues for a decade before getting their break.

And sometimes, even a guy who never played a single game as a professional ballplayer can wind up instructing millionaires how to hit at the sport’s highest level.

“Once you respect somebody, you listen to him,” Zimmerman said. “And he’s earned our respect.”

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