Rick Eckstein Talks Hitting and Memory
When Chico Harlan recently wrote about new Nats' hitting coach Rick Eckstein, mentioning his photographic memory, I was intrigued. I once memorized the names of every Vice President and every Presidential election loser, but about a week after I finished, 90 percent of the information disappeared from my brain. My long-term memory is atrocious. Eckstein's is different.
He wanted to make it clear that he's "not a psychic or anything," and that he never was flagged for having a stunning memory as a child, but as you'll read below, it's still pretty impressive. Incidentally, Rick first learned a golf swing at the age of 3 from his dad, a local club champion, and Rick was on the golf team his first two years of high school before switching to baseball.
After we chatted, we were walking into the stadium, when we paused by the back door. Eckstein told me to stare at the tread pattern on the tire of a nearby golf cart, then close my eyes. He asked if I could see the tread pattern in my mind. "Sort of," I said. Eckstein, told me that if he wanted to, he could sketch that tire pattern exactly, from his memory. That's why he's the hitting coach and I transcribe outlandishly long Q & A's.
So when you say a photographic memory, what does that mean exactly?
Well, for me, when I watch a hitter, I look at his hitting position. And I put that into my mind, that image into my imagination, so to speak. And when I shut my eyes, I can see him. I can see that picture in my mind. For an example, last year we had a young man during spring training, [Bill Rhinehart], that was really doing very well, hitting the ball very well. And so I basically watched him and watched him and put his image in my mind.
And then approximately six months later, I had him in the Fall League. I hadn't seen him during that time period. So when he showed up and he was hitting, it was different. And his numbers had actually dropped prior to getting to the Arizona Fall League. And I literally shut my eyes and thought back to watching him hit, and then 'Ok, I see him.' And I opened my eyes and watched him, and he had changed his position. So we just talked about getting him back to that position. I remember those things.
Do you still remember [Rhinehart's swing]?
Like, how many swings are in your mind?
As many guys as I've ever worked with.
Which has got to be in the hundreds, right?
And you could close your eyes and see any of their swings?
That's crazy. Did you have a good memory in school growing up?
You know, I did. I'm a visual learner, and if I hear it, I don't really retain the information that well. I need to hear it two, three, four times. But if I see it, I only have to see it once. That's just the way my mind really works.
So you're not the kind of guy who can recite poetry that he learned as a middle schooler?
Yeah, if I read it. If it was dictated to me, I'm not as good, but if I read it, really put my mind to it. Obviously you have to put your mind to it and say, 'Ok, I'm gonna remember this.' I can look at hitters and go, 'Oh, ok, all right all right all right.' But when I'm ready to put it in here [pointing at his head], I only put in here what I want in there, you follow that?
So if I'm watching a guy swinging a bat and I don't think it's his swing, then I don't bear down like that and lock that in here. If I think it's his swing, then I really bear down, I watch all the angles, I watch all the positions, and then I try to lock that in.
So it's actually like a conscious decision?
When did you first start coaching hitting?
I started working with hitters when I first started coaching. I wasn't the actual hitting coach, I assisted in hitting. That was in '97.
What kind of guys would you have worked with in that year?
Brad Wilkerson, Mark Ellis, my brother David Eckstein, David Ross. Those are all big leaguers now, they were on the college team I was with, the University of Florida Gators.
And so do you think you could see those guys' swings still if you wanted to?
Yeah, but at that time I didn't know what I know now. I was still discovering who I was. And I saw things, but quite frankly I didn't understand a lot at that point. But being around those hitters at that age, it was very very influential on me, because obviously they're accomplished big leaguers now. Four of the guys were at one point every-day big leaguers in their career.
What about your swing?
My swing? I was terrible. I had a bad swing coming up. It was long, I had a lot of flaws. And over time, working on hitting and doing stuff, my swing has gotten tremendously better, and that's helped me in teaching hitting versus talking hitting. Talking and teaching are two different animals. It's not the same. To teach somebody actually what you want them to know, that's the mystery. But to sit there and talk hitting--oh, good hitters use the other side of the field, they get good balance, their head and eyes stay on the ball, dadadadada--everybody can say that. But how do you teach a kid to do it?
So is your swing better now than it was?
Yes. Yeah. Night and day.
Really? Did you study your own swing a lot after you started?
And what did you think when you started looking at it seriously?
I realized why I wasn't reaching my potential as a hitter.
Do you think if you'd coached yourself earlier....
You'd like to think so. But who knows? Who knows?
Do you still help David?
Oh yeah. We talk. In the offseason we work, got him ready for Spring Training. Yeah.
It's not, I don't know, a conflict of interest or anything?
Well, he's my brother. I've been doing it his whole life. I mean, during the season he'll have Jim Lefebvre, so David [doesn't] need me at that point. I mean, come on, David knows who he is and he knows what he needs to do, but to get him ready, to get his body ready, that's my brother.
Do you ever analyze golf swings the same way?
Similar, yes. I mean, I've got my golf swing on my computer at home. Two weeks ago when Tim Foley came by, I said 'Skip, look at this swing,' and we critiqued my golf swing.
Did you come up with anything?
A little bit, yeah. Yup.
What about this, when you go to sleep at night do these swings ever pop into your head?
Yeah, it's hard to sleep at night sometimes. Because I keep thinking and thinking and thinking about the swing, and 'How am I gonna get him to understand this one aspect, get him into a better position so THIS swing will show up.' Yeah, I mean that happens a lot.
Do you ever dream about swings? Not to be weird.
I mean, it's hard to say. I don't know if I'm sleeping or not. But I think all the time about swings, yes. I wouldn't say dream. Maybe I do, I don't know.
Do you remember when you first realized that you could commit those swings to memory if you wanted to?
Yeah, because it was early in David's career. And as he was swinging the bat when I turned on the TV, I hadn't seen David swing in let's say a couple weeks. And I saw him for the first time, and it was like, that's different now. That's different. That's not David. And my dad was like, 'What are you talking about?' And I was like, 'Well look, look at this, look at this, look at this, look at this.' And then as I started seeing guys I'd worked in the past with that I hadn't seen in years, like Wilkerson. I'd watch him and go hmmm, I don't remember that.
Is it kind of like a gift, do you think?
I don't know. I don't know. I mean, there were times when my mom would always tell me--I was like, 'Mom, don't you see this, don't you see that?' And she was like, 'Rick, I don't see that.' So I don't know. It's just been something that's kind of really started to come forth and [I've] really started to try to understand.
So who's got the best swing you've ever seen?
Wow. Wow. I mean, I watch hitting from all different eras, all different swings. To be honest with you, you could argue that the guys who play 15-, 20-year careers and hit every year, you could argue that's a great swing, for him, you know what I mean? So to say what's the BEST swing....
Well, do you have a favorite?
I really don't think I have a favorite. I don't think of it that way. I think in terms of what works for each individual guy, what swing works for HIM, what's going to allow HIM to make an impact at the major league level. You could say, 'Ok, teach this guy Albert Pujols's swing.' But it's not going to work, because his body doesn't work that way. That's the way I think about hitting.
So you still watch old tapes of old guys?
Oh yeah. Because if you actually look at similar body types....You know, when I'm working with a hitter, I'll be throwing him batting practice or doing drill work, and all of the sudden it'll be 'That was Larry Walker.' Even though I'm working with a different hitter, in my mind I'm going That was Larry Walker's swing. So then I go back to my computer, I match up the hitter that I've got with Larry, and I go, Hmmm. Hmmm. His body just worked the same way. You know? That's the flashback that I get in my mind.
Do you know how much footage you have?
I've got a lot. I mean, I just keep collecting, keep collecting. At home I have my own little video library, and it's pretty much my entire desk, different CD's, different information, different DVDs, different books.
Dozens of DVDs?
Do you like doing it?
I love it. I love it.
So, coming to the park in the morning, like today?
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