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Tampa Bay Rays special assistant Dave Eiland taps into experience for spring training

Baseball took Dave Eiland to New York and Columbus, San Diego and Cleveland, Dallas and St. Louis. This season it brings Zephyrhills' native son back home.

Eiland is suited up in a Tampa Bay Rays uniform at spring training in Port Charlotte — no longer a player, but a special assistant to the front office. His main job is to help the organization prepare for the amateur draft in June. But he's at spring training to help provide crucial evaluations of pitchers in the camp, as well as others who could become available as rosters get trimmed down.

The best part of the arrangement: Eiland, 44, will work out of Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, allowing him to live year-round at home in Wesley Chapel with his wife, Sandi, and their teenage daughters, Nicole and Natalie. The new job offers a welcome chance, he said, for him to be a regular full-time father and husband.

"I am very fortunate and grateful to have the wife that I have," he said. "It's hard to put up with the difficulties that result from a professional athlete's schedule."

"Yes, I'm home now — the Rays and I are a perfect fit."

• • •

Eiland may live in Wesley Chapel now, but a couple of times a week he still visits Zephyrhills — where one of the main roads bears the family name — to visit his mother, sister, aunts and in-laws.

The town stirs warm memories for Eiland, who remembers learning to play baseball with his father, longtime Zephyrhills police Chief Bill Eiland, on the front yard of their 19th Street home.

"My dad was a huge presence in my life," the younger Eiland said. "He was my best friend and confidante, as well as the chief of police. I was extremely proud of him."

"Chief," as everyone in the community called Eiland's father, died in 1996 after spending 36 years as the town's top lawman. And Eiland still misses him tremendously. He's especially sorry that his dad didn't live long enough to see him pitch in Tropicana Field for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 1998 and 1999.

Eiland played everything at Zephyrhills High School: baseball, football, basketball and golf. His baseball number, 14, was retired a couple of years back, the capstone to his diamond exploits with the Bulldogs, but he was also an all-conference quarterback and wide receiver on the football team, and played golf so well that he still plays to a 7 handicap.

He played baseball at the University of South Florida in 1986-87 and was taken by the New York Yankees in the seventh round of the 1987 amateur draft. His progress through the Yankee farm system was fast-tracked. He started the 1988 season at Double A ball in Albany and was called up to the Columbus Clippers in the Triple A International League in July. Then, on Aug. 3, he was called up to the Yankees. He had just turned 22.

The Yankees tested their young pitcher immediately, starting him that same day against the Milwaukee Brewers at County Stadium in Milwaukee. Eiland pitched a solid seven innings and left with a 5-1 lead — which wasn't enough to stave off a 6-5 loss.

At the end of his first week in New York, the Toronto Blue Jays came to town, and Eiland started the third game. He was pulled in the second inning after giving up three runs on four hits and a walk. But that didn't sour the celebration that night when Chief Bill Eiland, high school baseball coach Craig Milburn and Zephyrhills High principal Larry Robison all met for dinner. A win would have been better, but their boy had just started a game in Yankee Stadium.

Nothing could dim their high spirits and pride.

• • •

The next couple of years were split between Columbus and New York, with 1990 being Eiland's best in professional ball. For Columbus, he went 16-5 with a 2.87 ERA, good enough for him to be named International League Pitcher of the Year, and then in September he was called up to the Yankees and went 2-1 with a 3.56 ERA.

In 1992, Eiland signed a free agent contract to play for the San Diego Padres in the National League, where pitchers hit — and it was there that he earned a spot in the all-time baseball record books.

In his first major league at-bat in San Diego, on April 10, 1992, Eiland faced Dodgers lefty Bobby Ojeda, who got two quick strikes on him and then tried to get Eiland to swing at two successive curve balls in the dirt.

"I figured I'd get a fastball next because Ojeda didn't want to go 3-2 on me," Eiland recalled. "When I got it, I hit it out of the park."

And thus Eiland became the only major league pitcher ever to give up a home run to the first batter he ever faced and hit one himself in his own first at-bat. It's a quirky kind of record that can't be broken, only tied, so Eiland has a permanent niche in baseball history.

For the next few years, Eiland bounced around with several clubs — the Indians, the Rangers, the Yankees again, the Cardinals — and then in 1998, he caught on with the new franchise in the American League, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He saw only limited service that year, but in 1999 he started 15 games, going 4-8, either losing or getting a no-decision in "several quality starts," as he puts it, that the bullpen gave away in the late innings.

One quality start he did not lose. On July 7, he faced Pedro Martinez and the Boston Red Sox at Tropicana Field. Martinez had one of the best years ever recorded by a pitcher that year, winning the Cy Young Award for his 23-4 record, but that day Eiland got the best of Martinez, winning the game 3-2.

That year Eiland also served as the "body double" for Kevin Costner in a movie called For Love of the Game, about a major league pitcher at the end of his career facing the New York Yankees.

In 2000 and 2001 Eiland suffered two arm surgeries that cut his career short. But in 2003 he began a new career as a pitching coach in the Yankee organization, working his way up the ladder from the Single A Gulf Coast Yankees to the Triple A Scranton Yankees. Then, in 2008, Dave replaced Ron Guidry as the New York Yankees' pitching coach and was part of the World Series championship season in 2009.

Now, he is back with the Rays, and he expects that coaching young pitchers and evaluating talent will be part of his career for many years to come.

"That's what I have a passion for," he said, "helping guys get better."

Tampa Bay Rays special assistant Dave Eiland taps into experience for spring training 03/03/11 [Last modified: Friday, March 4, 2011 10:50am]
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