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Despite Early Playoff Exit, Eckstein Counts His Blessings

By Bruce Wawrzyniak
October 31st, 2012
Catholic Sports Association (www.catholicsportsassociation.com)

It was a magical year for Major League Baseball's Washington Nationals.  Not only did they win the National League East division in 2012, but they were the winningest team this season, finishing with 98 victories.  But then came a five-game post-season that was as heartbreaking as those previous almost 100 contests were memorable.

WASHINGTON, DC (Catholic Sports Association) - It was a magical year for Major League Baseball's Washington Nationals.  Not only did they win the National League East division in 2012, but they were the winningest team this season, finishing with 98 victories.  But then came a five-game post-season that was as heartbreaking as those previous almost 100 contests were memorable.

With two outs in the top of the ninth inning and trailing 7-5, St. Louis scored four times en route to a 9-7 win over Washington in the fifth and deciding game of the National League Division Series.

Despite the script not ending the way baseball fans in our nation's capital would've liked it to, Nationals hitting coach Rick Eckstein said the season, however, brought with it good lessons.

"The Lord puts challenges in everyone's life to cultivate strength, toughness, stick-to-itiveness, all the characteristics you look for in these athletes to get the best out of themselves.  The tough times the last four years enabled our guys to grow the right way, to reach their potential."

As difficult as it is to come so close but not get to the National League Championship Series or the World Series, Eckstein has seen that these occurrences show that prayers are answered on God's time, not ours.

"I share with my wife all the time that in life you always want things.  For myself and our belief, the Lord will bless you but you have to be patient and faithful.  To be so close and not win it, well, you just have to be strong in your faith and never have doubt.  It absolutely allows you to see the big picture and keep striving forward.  When the time is right the Lord will bless you."

You didn't have to be a Nationals season ticketholder this season to know the name Bryce Harper.  He debuted in the Majors this season at the age of 19, which Eckstein says gives "hope and inspiration to young kids who want to achieve something great in sports.  What Bryce has accomplished this year is a testimony to his parents and the way they raised him.  Family values established in their home were building blocks in life.  Bryce has a good handle on all that and is blessed to have what he has gotten."

While working with one of the game's most publicized up-and-coming players might sound glamorous, Eckstein faces the pressure of every player wanting to put up big numbers regularly and every manager looking for his hitters to do so.  Eckstein says, "To say everyone's going to hit .300 with 30 home runs and 100 runs batted in isn't realistic.  I try to evaluate each person individually and develop a program and a plan to reach their potential as a major league hitter.  We want them to see that 'If I do this (hitting program) I'll be a member of a winning team.'"

He goes on to point out, however, that at times with his hitters he has to offer them something other than just comments about their mechanics or technique.  "You have to have that inner faith and inner strength to get through some of the toughest times.  I've been with guys that have been swinging the bat better than ever but aren't getting too many hits so I turn to my Faith.  You have to believe in your heart and have faith.  The ball is just not falling right.  You can't become negative and get down.  In MLB I'm showing up every day with my plan, my approach, and if at the end of the night I've given my best I'll win out, and your faith will be enacted.  Media will be on your back, fans will be booing - that's when you really have to rely on your faith to get through those times."

Having been with the Nationals the last four years and in sports - playing or coaching - since he was a student-athlete, Eckstein doesn't just talk the talk, he has walked the walk.

"I had an injury my junior year of college.  The Cincinnati Reds and San Diego Padres had sent information for me to fill out, potentially to be drafted.  But the ankle injury prevented me from finishing my junior year, which was a critical year.  After that no (team) talked to me again.

"After my senior year the coaches told me they wanted me to stay on as a coach, which was great.  So I went from severe disappointment to encouragement.  I applied for jobs at community colleges and was told I wasn't experienced enough.  I couldn't understand why - I had more experience than the others so it didn't add up.  I had interned under (football coach) Steve Spurrier at the University of Florida, so I got in my truck and went to Daytona where he was speaking." 

"I sat and listened to him talk, went back to my truck, flipped on my cellphone, and there were 20 messages from my dad to hurry up and call him.  The Minnesota Twins had called wanting me to go to the big leagues as their bullpen catcher.  Immediately I thought, 'okay God, I know why you said no.'  Suddenly I was working with the best of the best out of nowhere.  In two weeks a whole new world opened up.  My wife and I talk all the time about certain stuff and when one door closes you have to be patient for the other to open."

In two weeks he and Caroline will celebrate their one-year wedding anniversary, which takes on even more significance since the couple recently learned that they will be parents.  Caroline is due in May with their first child.  No doubt that little boy or girl will be told what Rick tells students.

"I always love to tell kids that no matter what you always need to give your best - school, chores at home, being a good brother or sister, a good son or daughter, grandchild. always give your best, because if you teach yourself to always give your best then when the moment arises you'll shine like the shining star you are.  You can't be selective.  Be a winner in all aspects of life.  You'll be a champion because you've always taught yourself to do things one way and that's the right way."

The Nationals may not have gone all the way through the 2012 post-season, but their hitting coach walks a Faith life that shows what a winner looks like off the field.

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