Hitting coach Rick Eckstein is a well-regarded resource for the Washington Nationals

Nationals first baseman Adam Dunn works with hitting coach Rick Eckstein during this month's spring training.
Nationals first baseman Adam Dunn works with hitting coach Rick Eckstein during this month's spring training. "I've had good hitting coaches in the past," Dunn said. "He takes it to another level." (Toni L. Sandys/the Washington Post)
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By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 31, 2010

VIERA, FLA. -- Sometimes, Rick Eckstein dreams about baseball swings. On Monday morning, he woke up thinking about Adam Dunn's. He had arrived at Space Coast Stadium an hour before anyone else so he could sit in a dark office and watch it on film. Now, most important to him, Eckstein wanted to feel it.

Before dawn broke, the Washington Nationals' hitting coach stepped into the batting cage, a bat resting on his shoulder with the knob facing straight ahead. Eckstein, a natural right-hander, stood in the left-handed batter's box. He lifted his left elbow and held his hands in front of his left shoulder, the tip of the bat now sticking toward the sky. He swung.

Eckstein could have emulated any other Nationals batter he oversees -- he has learned to mimic all of their swings. In his second year with the team, Eckstein has become both a rising star in coaching ranks and a favored resource inside the Nationals' clubhouse. Any coach can tell a player what to do. Eckstein can explain how you should feel.

"I've had good hitting coaches in the past," Dunn said. "He takes it to another level. His life is hitting. Not baseball. It's hitting."

The morning ritual

On Monday, Eckstein began his workday at 5:50 a.m. in the coaches' locker room, where he keeps boxes of granola and bran cereal in his stall. The night before, Eckstein went to bed at 8:15 so he could climb out of bed fresh at 4 a.m. "I think better in the morning," Eckstein said. At home, he drank coffee and stared at his computer, watching video he filmed himself.

"When I get here," he said, "I've got my mind where I want it."

Eckstein settled into a black leather office chair in front of two laptops. Sunday night, Eckstein had told Erick Dalton, the Nationals' video coordinator, which clips he wanted ready. Sometimes in the offseason, when a thought strikes Eckstein, he sends Dalton a text-message request for video of a specific player swinging in a specific game.

"I don't think he has a clock," Dalton said. "He just does his job."

On the laptop to his right, Eckstein scrolled down a list of players until he stopped at Dunn. Eckstein's right hand shook as he double-clicked the cursor. Up came an at-bat of Dunn's that ended with a groundball. On the other screen, Eckstein pulled up Dunn hitting a home run last year.

Eckstein leaned back in his chair, rested his chin in his right hand and stared at the screens, tapping a key to move them one frame ahead, one frame back. He spotted differences, small enough that you would not have noticed them, significant enough that he asked they not be printed. Once Eckstein explained what he sees, the disparity in Dunn's swings changed from imperceptible to obvious.

"I just look at it," Eckstein said. "And I know what's going through my head."

Once he finished watching film, he headed to the cage, walking past the first players to arrive. He used Dunn's swing, trying to replicate the spring training groundball and the home run from last season. Dunn had told Eckstein what he had been feeling, and Eckstein tried to match that to what he watched.


CONTINUED     1           >

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