Nats hitting coach steps up to the plate
The Washington Nationals’ Rick Eckstein relied on his faith to help him through his family’s history of kidney failure — including when he donated one of his own kidneys to his brother.
“God doesn’t put anything in your life that you can’t handle.”
Rick Eckstein, the hitting coach for the Washington Nationals, remembers his mother speaking those words to him when the family of seven found out that, while in high school, Susan, Eckstein’s oldest sister, suffered from glomerulonephritis, a genetic kidney disease that leads to kidney failure. The words sustained him throughout not only that first family medical challenge in 1988, but the many that have followed.
The disease, passed down to the family from the children’s father, Whitney, has affected the entire family. Those who do not suffer from the disease — including Eckstein and his youngest brother, David, a former National League all-star — have made their contributions in the form of donating kidneys. Eckstein’s mother, Patricia, donated her kidney to Susan in 1989. Since then, Eckstein’s other sister, brother and father have all received transplants.
Last December, Eckstein took his turn at the plate, donating his kidney to his brother Ken. It was a decision that he made last summer when Ken was on dialysis and “it was touch and go,” Eckstein said, sitting in his red and white uniform in the Nationals dugout during a recent home stand.
“I started thinking about him a lot,” he said. “One morning I woke up and I knew — I knew — (without) a shadow of a doubt that I was going to donate to my brother. I didn’t even know my blood type, I didn’t know if I would match ... but I knew I was doing it.”
With the full support of his fiancée, Caroline FitzPatrick, Eckstein went to Nationals Park, talked to the team trainer and set up an appointment for a blood test. Two days later, he got the news: He was a match.
“It was kind of surreal because I knew,” he said. “When it came back … it was just a confirmation.”
He started his paperwork in September, taking evaluations and tests. Everything was compatible, and Eckstein was raring to go. He pushed for an earlier date than the ones first proposed by the doctors. Not late January, not mid-December, but Dec. 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception.
“I wanted to go, I wanted to do it,” he said.
Soon after regaining consciousness following surgery, Eckstein only wanted to see Ken. He told the nurse he would walk to his room if they didn’t get a wheelchair.
“I saw him,” Eckstein said. And that moment was like one he’d never experienced. “I had some tears in my eyes. When you are able to give, it really puts a lot of things in perspective.”
“Driving home in the car, it was like ‘wow, what just happened?’” he added. “You could feel the prayers and the strong faith.”
This strong Catholic faith stems from Whitney and Patricia, who raised a family of five children in Sanford, Fla. — coincidentally just under 70 miles from where the Nationals train in Viera, Fla.
“Both parents have always had a strong faith,” said Eckstein, who attended All Souls Church in Sanford, where he received all his sacraments and served as an altar boy for nearly 10 years. “It’s something to this day that I rely on in good times and in tough times. That’s the foundation of the stability and the strength and the peacefulness.”
After his surgery and donation, Eckstein left the hospital in record time. In January, merely weeks later, he took Patricia on a tour of Italy, including a stop in Rome and the Vatican. He got back into full baseball swing at spring training and is now back at his job and working as normally as if his body still had two kidneys. As for Ken, he recently vacationed in London.
“I don’t even think about it anymore,” Eckstein said. “I think that’s what a gift really is. You give it, you move on. You’re happy you’re able to do something.”
In his very public position with the Nationals’ organization, Eckstein relies on his faith to help him keep things in perspective — a feat that isn’t always easy.
“Everybody’s scrutinizing every move and every decision, (and my faith) allows me to maintain a mindset that’s stable,” he said. “There are some nights I leave (the ballpark) and I’m the biggest bum that walks the face of the earth, (and I hear) that I’m not very smart, that I don’t know what I’m doing. Those things aren’t easy to swallow. That’s when I have to take the punches in stride and I rely on my faith for that.”
Eckstein does this in the same quiet way that led him to be positively sure that he would be Ken’s kidney donor — deliberately, with time, allowing God to show him the way.
“I put a lot of things on my heart to allow Him to lead me,” he said. “I think a lot of times we try to control everything and in reality we can’t control most anything. A lot of times I have to sit back and go, ‘OK, God … it’s in Your hands.’”
For Eckstein and his healthy brother, now bonded together in a special way, this attitude not only paid off, it gave life.