Originally posted on Fox Sports Florida  |  Last updated 12/13/12
GAINESVILLE, Fla. The not-so-subtle reminders faded away for the better part of a decade. Whitey Eckstein understood the situation. His son David, a former walk-on baseball player at Florida, was living a most improbable dream. David Eckstein wasn't supposed to be good enough to play for the Gators when he tried out for the team in 1994. "He stood around for three weeks before he ever had a chance to step on the field,'' Whitey said. "He wasn't exactly sought after." Talk about overcoming the odds. Eckstein developed into an All-Southeastern Conference infielder and was drafted in the 19th round by the Boston Red Sox in 1997. Again, there was no way the 5-foot-7 middle infielder was going to make it to the majors. The scout who signed him told Whitey that David would make a good coach one day. Maybe he will. But in the 15 years since Eckstein signed his first professional contract, he played 10 seasons in the big leagues, won two World Series rings and was World Series MVP in 2006 when he helped the Cardinals defeat the Tigers in the Fall Classic. Eckstein's unlikely career has been a favorite subject of fans and writers for years. They called him scrappy and feisty and marveled at the way he seemed to get the most out of his 165-pound body. The season the Cardinals won the World Series, Eckstein suffered a torn oblique muscle, a concussion, a strained hamstring and strained shoulder. Former St. Louis manager Tony La Russa called Eckstein the "toughest guy I've ever seen in uniform" after his World Series-MVP performance. Whitey and his wife Pat enjoyed David's unexpected journey from their home in Sanford, Fla., where they raised their five kids. They shared in David's success in the big leagues and that of their son Rick, another former University of Florida baseball player who is now hitting coach for the Washington Nationals. Still, something was missing for Whitey when it came to David's accomplishments. Whitey and Pat met in high school. Whitey was two years older than his future wife. He left home to enroll at Florida in 1963. Pat joined him two years later, and they both graduated in 1968. "She graduated in three years,'' Whitey said. "I wasn't that smart." Both embarked on teaching careers after college and began to raise a family, producing five kids in five years. All five attended the University of Florida. Four of them could say they were Florida graduates. David was the outsider looking in. "When I was drafted, I was 22 credits shy,'' David said Wednesday. "I came back in the fall of 1997 and obtained 12 credits. I knew I was eventually going back to school. My dad was going to make sure, and so was Ann Hughes." In the fall of 2000, a few months before making his big-league debut with the Angels on April 3, 2001, Eckstein earned three more credits toward his degree. Then his baseball career took off and the degree was permanently placed in the on-deck circle. Whitey's hints about finishing the degree dropped off as he watched David help the Angels beat Barry Bonds and the Giants for the 2002 World Series title. Time marches on, of course, and David's playing career came to a close two years ago with the Padres. The focus began to shift in 2011. Eckstein was out of the big leagues and helping his wife, Ashley, build Her Universe, a company that creates products for female sci-fi fans. Enter Hughes, a longtime family friend and assistant director of student services in the University of Florida's Office of Student Life. She bumped into Ashley at a bridal shower for Rick Eckstein's fiance. Ashley called David to tell him Hughes was in town. "He came to the bridal shower to say hello to me,'' Hughes said. "That's when we first really started getting back into making finishing his degree happen. The online thing made this work." Eckstein earned the final seven credits needed for his political science degree this fall. He won't be at Florida's official graduation ceremonies this weekend at the O'Connell Center, but he can't wait for his diploma to arrive in the mail. As Eckstein dropped by Ashley's business late Wednesday afternoon, he spoke enthusiastically about one of the courses he took -- GEB 3035, Effective Career Management -- and how it has helped him in his post-playing career. "It was a great class, and I would recommend every student out there to take that prior to graduating because it really gets you prepared,'' said the 37-year-old Eckstein. "I had to write a rsum. I had to write an autobiography. I had to do five occupational job interviews." All this brings a big smile to Whitey Eckstein and Hughes, the tag team that led the way. "When he retired I told him, 'David, if you want to give me a present or you want to do something that really makes me happy, I want you to get that degree.' So he did it,'' Whitey said. "The book is closed." "It's a very rewarding thing,'' said Hughes, who has served as an academic counselor for UF's baseball team since Eckstein played. "There are a lot of kids we help with this that you don't hear about. "David is such a unique human being. I don't know anyone who couldn't learn something from him. David is a great message of just about anything you want to talk about as a student-athlete." Hughes will use Eckstein's example to motivate other former Florida student-athletes to do the same. She'll share his story with current athletes as they weigh their options between staying in school and pursuing professional opportunities like several players on last season's College World Series team. If you leave, remember, you can come back. The plan when Eckstein started college was to go to law school. His story has taken all sorts of twists and turns since then. For now he is working to help grow Ashley's business and learning more about the business world. "It's a totally different from baseball, but you still get that kind of adrenaline rush when you are testing a new design and hitting the market,'' Eckstein said. "It's something different but it's keeping me busy." Eckstein continues to remain involved in baseball. He spends many of his days back home in Sanford, volunteering with Rick in teaching young players a new training system they have developed. The kids know Eckstein the major leaguer, Eckstein the World Series MVP. He wants them to know about Eckstein the college graduate, too. "My degree is important to me,'' he said. "Hey, it is possible to go back and finish. Your life is not over just because you stop playing."
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