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Even Rick Eckstein has his limits

As you can read in today's paper, Rick Eckstein is one terrific hitting coach. But he's no miracle worker, as evidenced by his newest pupil: me.

Eckstein let me tag along with him for a couple hours Monday morning, for which I am grateful. It was beyond fascinating. As we stood in the batting cage and he tried to explain the way he teaches hitting, Eckstein grabbed the tape recorder, notebook and pen out of my hand and handed me his bat. He wanted me to hit off a tee. What ensued was a mixture of wild embarrassment and epic failure. It was also really fun. This is kind of how it went:

Eckstein: "I want you stay behind the ball. I want you to hit this ball out of the park."

I swung and basically whiffed. I nicked the top of the ball and it dribbled away from the tee.

Eckstein: "No, no, no. You got to keep your head still now."

Me: "That was really bad."

Another swing, which produces a weak grounder to about shortstop.

Eckstein: "Okay. Wait a second. You're falling back now. I'm being kind of funny. Okay. How am I going to teach you how to swing the bat the right way?"

Me: "That'd be a long process."

Eckstein: "Everything I've told you so far hasn't worked for you. Right?"

I adjust in the batter's box and I take another swing. I finally hit a good one, a line drive to the back of the cage. (I should mention that when Eckstein hit off the tee, it sounded like mortar fire. Even my best hit sounded like wet spaghetti splatting against a brick wall.)

Eckstein: "Why'd you move back in the box?"

I hit another ball, like the one before the line drive.

Eckstein: "That's a nice groundball. Hit the ball through the center of the field. Hit it back at the pitcher."

Another 6-3.

Eckstein: "Hit it back at the pitcher."

A total duff.

Eckstein: "Okay, now, you ready? You took one swing the entire time. As I made you hit the ball to different parts, what did you do?"

Me: "I moved around."

Eckstein: "You moved around in the box. Can't do that in a game. You have a one swing. [Editor's note: Not a compliment.] But how do I get the one swing to work against cutters, sliders, curveballs, fastballs, up, down, in and out? You can't move around and shift your body. All you did on that ball is you back up, changed your angle, took your same pull swing to hit it up the middle. That's not real. Can you get into a solid position?"

I took another swing, not as good as that other line drive, but close.

Me: "I'm kind of coming around it."

Eckstein: "Uh huh! When you go to hit, this is you."

Eckstein bent back at the midsection in a most un-athletic way.

Eckstein: "You're stuck back here. You're not transferring any weight into your front side. You're here on every swing. Your bat is going through the zone this way. Your bat is coming through the zone here. That's your path through the strike zone. That's why you're hitting those balls on the ground. You have to learn how to take a path this way."

Me: "That was always my problem."

Eckstein: "How do I teach you? There's no answer. It's about work. What works that you understand? As you swing, I would try different words. Try this. Try that. Do this. Do that. What does it feel like? What does it feel like? What does it feel like? What does it feel like? And then as you give me feedback, I know how you think. I know how you think, I can talk to you."

He took the bat back and took another swing, mimicking Adam Dunn perfectly. I asked him if it seemed strange to even watch me swing after working with major league hitters.*

Eckstein: "Everybody watches it on TV and says, 'Gosh, that's so easy. How do you take a pitch?' You set a ball on a tee for you ... there's a lot of technique. There's a lot of things that go into it. Teaching and talking are two different things. I just try to do the best I can do with the way I think I need to go about it per individual. Is mine the best way of teaching it? No, but I do what works for me."

*I hope you don't mind indulging me making an obvious point in a weirdly inexact way. If this makes no sense, good ahead and skip past the italicized part. Anyway, those few minutes I spent swinging were a reminder how mind-boggling good professional baseball players are. That seems like a stupid thing to write; yeah, of course they're extremely good. What I am trying to suggest is something else -- they are so good we don't even understand how good they are. There's so much baseball played, and they make it look so easy and routine that it starts to feel like background music. Just using my own experience as a measuring stick, I wasn't all that good, but it's not like I totally sucked. I've been watching semi-anonymous minor leaguers for a month, and the difference between me and them is indescribable. I don't think it's possible to describe. Maybe before I did this hitting exercise with Rick Eckstein, I would have tried to describe the difference -- I wouldn't have settled on "unspeakably vast." That doesn't do it justice. Nothing does. Don't get me wrong here. I'm not foolish or arrogant enough to have has the impression I was in the same baseball universe as even the worst player in camp. I had what I thought was a respectful and largely accurate view of a professional's skill compared to the average guy who played in high school. And I was still really, really far off. They are not simply way, way, way, way better than you and I were. They are playing a different game. They're firing guns; we threw bullets.

Consider this rambling paragraph a disclaimer for every time I write something nasty when a guy is in a slump. That'll happen, and there's nothing wrong with it. But I think it's easy to lose perspective. What I mean: Justin Maxwell went for 5 for 49 this spring training. That's terrible. Well, from super-long view, going 5 for 49 during a major league spring is an impossibly rare achievement for the average, or even somewhat above-average, human.

Okay, thanks for sticking it out. I hope that didn't come off as vain and/or a complete waste. I don't/won't do this type of thing often. Hitting off that tee in a big league batting cage just got me thinking.**

**Yes, I ripped off this footnote device from Joe Posnanski. Not gonna be the last time.

There were two important points on Eckstein I really didn't get to in the dead-tree version. First, as Ryan Zimmerman alluded to, one of Eckstein's strength's is his ability to cater to individual needs. That can very even for the same player, depending on where he is mentally.

Eckstein has been working with Eric Bruntlett this spring to make him more aggressive and try to pull the ball more. Bruntlett's instinct with Philadelphia was to be patient and try to flip balls the other way. They both decided Bruntlett need to attack.

At one point, "I started slipping back into old habits," Bruntlett said. "He just kind of got into me in the cage. He said, 'What the [expletive] are you doing? This isn't it. You've done this before. Don't allow yourself to fall back into the trap.' "

A few days later, Bruntlett hit into some outs. He hit the ball okay, but he used the approach Eckstein and him talked about. Bruntlett came back to the dugout and Eckstein was waiting. "'Yeah, that's good. That's what we want. Good work," Eckstein told him then.

The second thing is, Eckstein sees himself as a guide, not an authority. He prefers cultivating self-discovery rather than telling a hitter what to do. He asks a lot of questions and lets the hitter figure it out with his own answers. When Eckstein talks about getting the feel for a hitter, he uses that to get closer to what makes him work.

"I don't say things just to say it," Eckstein said. "I say it and I think about it as if it was my career on the line."

By Adam Kilgore  |  March 31, 2010; 8:44 AM ET
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Fantastic. Great work, Adam. Keep it up.

Posted by: rumbaugm | March 31, 2010 9:04 AM | Report abuse

I think the Nats position players roster is set, assuming Guzman is on the bench and not the DL:

(IF)Dunn Kennedy Desmond Zimmerman Guzman Gonzalez (OF)Willingham Morgan Harris Morse Bernadina (CA) Rodriguez Nieves

Bruntlett probably gone today...

Posted by: estuartj | March 31, 2010 9:11 AM | Report abuse

Adam - any chance there's some video of you and your adventures at the tee?

We promise we won't laugh at you...

Posted by: gilbertbp | March 31, 2010 9:21 AM | Report abuse

Nice work Adam, thanks.

Posted by: rvrtis | March 31, 2010 9:32 AM | Report abuse

Reading the linked article about Eckstein, I kept thinking, "the zen of hitting..."

Posted by: gilbertbp | March 31, 2010 9:36 AM | Report abuse

"blankets for the homeless"

A little classless or callous? No?

Glad to see it was changed.

Posted by: BigNasty | March 31, 2010 9:41 AM | Report abuse

Great dead-tree piece, and I absolutely loved this post (including the footnote)! I second gilbert re. the video. I was actually thinking that maybe the "me" link led to such a video (instead of the comical but strangely unsettling picture that is there :-D). Great reminder of the skill involved at this level of the game.

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | March 31, 2010 9:42 AM | Report abuse

Well done both in the print and in this blog post. Excellent stuff.

Posted by: hoo93 | March 31, 2010 9:42 AM | Report abuse

Oh, and I think Eckstein should do this with all the beat writers, and the columnists - with video. Get in there, Boswell. Get in there... :-)

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | March 31, 2010 9:43 AM | Report abuse

Imitating Joe Posnanski seals it for me. Welcome to DC Adam. So happy you are on the Nationals beat.

Posted by: brewerja | March 31, 2010 9:44 AM | Report abuse

Entirely too much baseball analysis and reporting. I thought this was a food and music blog.

Posted by: BobLHead | March 31, 2010 9:46 AM | Report abuse

Great Post! Keep it up.

Posted by: VTNatsFan | March 31, 2010 9:48 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for all the posts.

Just a hint though;"very" and "vary" sound the same, but mean different things.
I think you'll find that "vary" is the proper word to use in the Zimmerman semi-quote from important point 1.

Please take it as intended, namely mild constructive criticism, from, in this case, the first among quibbling nit-pickers.

Keep up the good work!

Posted by: shygaard | March 31, 2010 9:51 AM | Report abuse

I'm wondering if the miracle worker can help me hit one at Baseball 101 for women.

That would be an accomplishment!

Posted by: jenjensn | March 31, 2010 9:52 AM | Report abuse

AK are you good enough to play RF?

Posted by: hansenjo | March 31, 2010 10:06 AM | Report abuse

But how do the players feel about him as a person?! Does Eckstein play cards with them?!

Posted by: doubleuefwhy | March 31, 2010 10:15 AM | Report abuse

I think any hope of editing Kilgore would have to be considered a lost cause. The Baseball Preview section in today's fishwrap had THREE editors, yet none of them was able to stop Kilgore from writing that Rafael Belliard once played second base for the Nats.

Posted by: nunof1 | March 31, 2010 10:16 AM | Report abuse

Adam you really love baseball and it's proven out in your writing. Keep writing and I'll be reading. Thx

Posted by: Berndaddy | March 31, 2010 10:29 AM | Report abuse

Really, REALLY good one, Adam. Keep it up!

Posted by: Juan-John1 | March 31, 2010 10:38 AM | Report abuse

Circle me, Rick!

Posted by: VelocityAtrocity | March 31, 2010 10:40 AM | Report abuse

Proof reading is not a crime!

Posted by: VarlyisNarly | March 31, 2010 11:12 AM | Report abuse

Adam, your hitting way above average this spring, had some big time out of the park homers and have minimized the errors( i dont care about typos, its a blog). Your love of the game transcends through your posts. Keep it up you have been a sterling addition to this blog and the nats beat.

Posted by: Stu27 | March 31, 2010 11:30 AM | Report abuse

Thanks Adam, great write up.

Posted by: rvrtis | March 31, 2010 11:32 AM | Report abuse

Great post.

We underestimate ballplayers' skills because of all the 4 major sport baseball is the one most familiar to us as players.

We know we're not 6'10" so we dont identify with NBA players, and most of us have never played tackle football or ice hockey.

But we've all played baseball or softball so it's easy to lose sight of the degree to which, as Adam wrote, these guys are playing a different game.

At the same time, it's our ability to identify -- to do what Adam did and actually take a little BP with the coach -- that makes the game so much fun.

Posted by: Meridian1 | March 31, 2010 11:49 AM | Report abuse

Im humiliated in Softball every summer, So I understand the difference between me and a major league baseball player.

With that said, Maxwell still sucks.

Posted by: Cartaldo | March 31, 2010 12:24 PM | Report abuse

Or put another way, how many blog readers think THEY could file 200+ stories in about eight months, on tight deadlines, and stay interesting, literate, and mostly spelled right? Anybody can write one good story.

Posted by: Sec3mysofa | March 31, 2010 1:29 PM | Report abuse

Wait. Was that BP or tee ball? :-)


At the same time, it's our ability to identify -- to do what Adam did and actually take a little BP with the coach -- that makes the game so much fun.

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | March 31, 2010 1:29 PM | Report abuse

Excellent post AK. Enjoying you on the beat and trusting that I got a bargain on RZ at $26 in my fantasy draft.

Posted by: digger15 | March 31, 2010 2:02 PM | Report abuse

Adam -- 2 points: (1) In 1979 I worked for the Buffalo Bisons, Pirates AA club in the Eastern League. Buffalo Evening News sportswriter Tony Violanti asked a question that told us he really had no idea what it was like to stand in the batter's box while a professional pitcher threw a fastball past him. We had him do that in the bullpen one night when Stew Cliburn [] would start. Like you at bat, Tony was amazed & instantly accorded more respect to the players he watched & reported on. (2) When he was 10, I helped my older son in LL learn to hit by reading with him "The Art of Hitting .300" by Charley Lau. I believe the fundamentals in it are excellent. Unfortunately it's out of print, but you might have a friend or contact with a copy.

Posted by: 1952dad | March 31, 2010 2:03 PM | Report abuse

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