"Big Four" Highlights


Heroic Coach

Rick Eckstein donates a part of himself to brother

By Brian Caulfield

The name Eckstein will be familiar to baseball fans who have followed the career of David, the veteran infielder who has played for a number of teams, most recently the San Diego Padres. His brother, Rick, made a few headlines of his own last December when he donated a kidney to the eldest Eckstein brother, Ken, who was suffering from renal disease. Rick, 40 years old, was a baseball star in college and is now batting coach for the Washington Nationals.

The Ecksteins

The Ecksteins, parents and five children, relax at family gathering. Rick is in white shirt; Ken, who received the kidney, is sitting behind him.

In my interview with him at spring training camp in Florida this month, he said that kidney disease has struck most of his family members, Ken, his two sisters and both parents. Ken said before the surgery that he never wanted to take a kidney from his brothers since their sports careers require top physical performance. But Rick never had second thoughts about the sacrifice.

“I feel great,” Rick said. “I don’t feel any different. If I didn’t know I’d donated a kidney I would never suspect.”

Ken, 42, lives in Tampa, Florida, and is doing well with his new kidney. He had received a kidney from another donor years ago that eventually wore out.

Recalling the decision to donate, Rick said, “I didn’t even know if I would be a match, but there was this faith and intuition I had that told me I was going to donate to my brother Kenny.”

When the blood test came back a match for his brother, Rick decided to have the procedure done as soon as possible in baseball’s off-season.

 “We started the process, and we did the transplant on December 8th, the feast of the Immaculate Conception,” he noted with a smile. “It was a special sign.”

Rick said that the Catholic faith was central to the family as the five Eckstein children grew up in Florida. “Our parents were very strong Catholic people and we were all brought up in the Catholic faith: Sunday school, first Communion, Confession, altar boys. The Catholic faith is a part of our everyday thought process. It’s helped me strive to be the best person I can be, and to learn from my mistakes.”

He never remembers missing Sunday Mass, even while playing baseball at the University of Florida and now with the hectic major league travel schedule. The Nationals are one of a number of teams that hold a weekly Sunday Mass for players, coaches and stadium personnel in the clubhouse before or after games, at home or on the road. Catholic Athletes for Christ helps to find priests and secure a place for Mass.

“All through my life, I’ve been willing to get up at 5 a.m. to find a Mass in whatever city I’m in,” Rick Eckstein said.

Asked to give advice to parents who would like their kids to become major leaguers, he said, “Make sure that you help them to develop their whole person, not just in baseball or sports. Too many kids are being pushed in only one direction, when they really should be developing many different skills and talents.” He suggested that parents “create an environment for your kids so that they will do their best in whatever they put their mind to. This will help them build a solid foundation for the future in whatever they do.”