I went from being one of the best players, batting .550, to not being able to do it mentally, hitting .200. I thought I was mentally tough. But I couldn’t hit the ball. I couldn’t understand the fear. I worked on it but just couldn’t overcome it. ... I think things worked out for the best. —Eric Weddle, former Ute and current NFL safety
This is the second of five excerpts from the recently released book, "No Excuses, No Regrets: The Eric Weddle Story," which follows the former Utah Ute's journey to becoming a Pro Bowl safety with the NFL's San Diego Chargers. "No Excuses, No Regrets," written by Deseret News journalist Trent Toone, is available at Deseret Book.
There was a time when Rick Secrist believed Eric Weddle was destined for Major League Baseball.
Even Eric admits he was better at baseball at the time, and pro scouts were interested, Secrist said.
Secrist, the varsity baseball coach at Weddle’s alma mater Alta Loma High, near Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., irritated some parents when he named Weddle the starting center fielder because Weddle didn’t play as a sophomore.
“He was a five-tool player,” Secrist said.
He had speed, he could hit for both average and power, he could field the ball, and he had a cannon for an arm, the coach said. Secrist also admired Eric’s energy, intensity, competitiveness and overall air of confidence. Most important to Secrist, Eric was a coach’s player. After two decades of coaching many great athletes in football, basketball and baseball at the high school and collegiate levels, Weddle remains one of his favorites.
“Coaching players like him made the job worthwhile,” Secrist said.
It’s easy, then, to understand the coach’s disappointment when Eric’s season and career in baseball ended before it had barely begun.
A tradition of trash-talking usually accompanied games between A.B. Miller High and Weddle's Alta Loma Braves. Prior to a Saturday doubleheader, coach Secrist warned his players of potential trouble and discouraged retaliation. The coach was trying to establish a reputation of sportsmanship but the next several hours proved to be anything but honorable.
It began when the A.B. Miller pitcher breached baseball etiquette and warmed up on the pitcher’s mound instead of in the bullpen. That led to a heated exchange between coaches as they exchanged lineup cards at home plate. The umpires were forced to intervene.
In the top of the first inning, Alta Loma's pitcher almost hit an A.B. Miller batter. That close call may have been interpreted as retaliation for their pitcher warming up on the mound, Secrist said.
So when Eric Weddle strutted to the plate to lead off for the home team in the bottom of the first, he had no idea the A.B. Miller pitcher might be gunning for him. As the first pitch was fired, Eric eyed the white sphere’s rotation and expected it to curve. It did not.
Instead, the high fastball sailed straight into his face, smashing against his left eye. There was a collective gasp from the small crowd as Eric went down and then staggered to his feet. Players froze. Eric tried to make his way to first base, believing he could tough it out. While the rest of the team showed restraint by staying in the dugout, Secrist and trainer Mike Elert rushed to attend to the injured player. The swelling to Eric’s face came on quickly, and ice was applied. Within minutes, Eric was on his way to the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center emergency room in nearby Fontana.
There was no doubt in Secrist’s mind that what the pitcher did was intentional.
The doctor who examined Eric reported a fractured eye socket, with damage to his lower orbital and cheekbone. His eyeball was pushed back a half inch into his skull, and his eye was swollen shut, colored red and purple. As horrible as it looked, the doctor said Eric was lucky. The injury required a month or so to heal.
“An inch to the left or the right and I could have been blind,” Weddle said.
Back at the ballpark, emotions got the best of both teams. When the A.B. Miller pitcher who hit Eric came up to bat, Alta Loma’s pitcher got the signal to hit him and hurled a hard fastball that landed in the middle of his back. He eventually trotted down to first base.
“Unfortunately, they got Eric a lot worse than we got their guy,” Secrist said.
The rest of the first game and the second game were played without incident and Secrist found Weddle at the hospital after the game.
Eric returned to the lineup by the end of the season, but he was not the same player. His defensive skills were still solid, but mentally he struggled to stay in the batter’s box.
“I went from being one of the best players, batting .550, to not being able to do it mentally, hitting .200. I thought I was mentally tough,” Eric said with disappointment. “But I couldn’t hit the ball. I couldn’t understand the fear. I worked on it but just couldn’t overcome it. I finished out the season, but I quit playing. I’ve always been able to overcome things, and to this day it still bugs me that I couldn’t overcome a ball to the face. But I think things worked out for the best.”
His coach patiently worked with his young star but to no avail.
“It was a sad day when he moved on,” Secrist said. “Obviously, as a baseball coach you are a little possessive. With him making the decision not to play baseball, we were losing a great player who was instrumental in the success of our program overall. It was players like Eric that I was building a proper foundation for our program around, and it would have been nice to have him around for two years. But I wanted to be supportive, and I knew football was the sport for him.”
Looking back, the fastball to the face was a destiny-defining event for Eric. He reflected on how things might have gone.
“If that pitch doesn’t happen,” Eric said, “I probably finish out playing baseball, probably end up getting drafted or playing baseball in college, don’t end up going to Utah, maybe I don’t join the LDS Church, and maybe I don’t see Chanel again, although I would like to think some of those things would still come to pass. It’s crazy to consider how different life might be if that doesn’t happen. It’s crazy to think about how it changed the course of my life.”
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