Even Rick Eckstein has his limits
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."
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."
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