There’s a phrase tattooed on Corey Eckstein’s right arm that aptly summarizes his life in baseball to this point.
“Injuries may be forgiven, but not forgotten . . . Turning wounds into wisdom,” the script lettering reads.
Directly below the tattoo is another memento that’s even more striking – a five-inch-long scar (see photo at bottom of page). It’s a souvenir from the Tommy John surgery he underwent in March 2005 to repair ligaments in his elbow.
The dreaded ligament reconstruction, named after the former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher who return to pitch remarkably well after undergoing the then-revolutionary surgery in 1974, used to be a career death sentence for pitchers.
In recent years, though, the success rate has climbed to the point where it’s just a minor setback in many cases. Current major league stars like Stephen Strasburg and Adam Wainwright have undergone the surgery and come back with few ill effects.
Eckstein’s procedure wasn’t one of those success stories.
He’d gone down to Vernon College in Texas in 2004, fresh off a stint with the Canadian junior national team, and while he pitched well, he was bothered by increasing pain and stiffness in his elbow.
Upon returning home to Abbotsford in December, he had an MRI and got the results on Christmas Eve. It wasn’t good news. The ulnar collateral ligament was completely torn, and the lateral collateral ligament was significantly damaged.
Eckstein’s fastball hit 89 miles per hour on the radar gun in September 2004, but never came close to touching that again following the surgery, even after a year and a half of rehab.
He lost his scholarship, and at age 19, his playing career was done.
“It was tough to swallow,” he acknowledged. “You work so hard for so long, and to know it was coming to a halt, it was tough to take.
“But when I look back, it might have been the best thing that’s ever happened to me, as far as what’s going on in my life.”
Indeed, it’s remarkable what Eckstein has been able to accomplish in baseball in eight short years since then.
He made a lightning-quick transition into coaching – his right arm was still in a sling when he led his first sessions at Abbotsford’s Power Zone Academy in the spring of 2005. He also began helping out with the Abbotsford Cardinals, the local B.C. Premier Baseball League club, and currently serves as head coach of the senior under-18 team.
Eckstein would later open his own private coaching business, Sandlot Baseball, and he heads up the baseball academy at Yale Secondary.
If if all those responsibilities weren’t enough, he’s also served as the third base coach with the Canadian junior national team since 2008, helping guide the squad to a surprising silver medal at the world junior championship in South Korea in 2012.
“A lot of things have happened that I didn’t think would happen by the age of 27,” marveled Eckstein, who is weighing an offer to join the staff at the B.C. Youth Baseball Legacy Complex, a world-class training centre set to open in Penticton this fall.
“It’s a bit of a grind, but I’m working with kids every day, so I’m pretty fortunate. You get to do what you love on a daily basis, and not too many people have that.”
Eckstein’s Cardinals open the 2013 season this weekend. They visit the Vancouver Cannons for a doubleheader on Saturday, and host the Whalley Chiefs on Sunday at 12 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. at DeLair Park.
It’s setting up to be an exciting season for the local squad – the BCPBL Final Four will be at DeLair Park July 26-28, and the Cards will be in the field by virtue of their host status.
“Our offence isn’t going to be as potent as it was last year, so we’ll have to be creative,” Eckstein analyzed. “We have some speed on the bases that we’ll utilize, and some depth on the mound. We have eight or nine guys who can fill up the strike zone and compete and give us a chance to win.”
Eckstein and wife Kourtni were married last September, and he said her support has allowed him to broaden his horizons in coaching. With his junior national team commitments, he’s traveling three to four months per year.
Ultimately, the payoff is seeing the kids grow up over the years. Last year’s Cardinals team, for instance, featured a group of players Eckstein had worked with since they were nine years old.
“To see them develop as people is special,” he said. “A lot of kids will go through growth spurts where they might be the devil when they’re 14, and you see them make changes in their lifestyle, graduate and go on to post-secondary education.
“That’s what it comes down to for me. Whether they’re successful in baseball is a bonus in my eyes. As long as they’re ready to attack the real world by the end of the time they’re with me, I can say I did my job.”
And that’s what turning wounds into wisdom is all about.
Corey Eckstein tattooed a reminder on his arm that the elbow surgery which ended his playing career shouldn’t be viewed as an impediment, but rather an inspiration. (submitted photo)