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Struggles as player help New York Yankees pitching coach Dave Eiland excel as teacher

NEW YORK — Less than a month into his first season, the rookie big-league pitching coach had to call in one of his struggling starters to make it clear he'd have to change things to stay in the rotation.

"You know my background," Dave Eiland, who won 12 games in the major leagues, began that April 2008 day to Mike Mussina, who'd won 251. "I wasn't even close to being the same type of pitcher you are. But you're not the pitcher you used to be, and you have to make adjustments."

Eiland wanted him to throw inside more, tweak a few other things; Mussina wasn't interested. Well then, Eiland said, "if you're not going to do this, you're not going to pitch here anymore."

Mussina made the changes, reversing a rugged 1-3 start into a remarkable 20-win farewell season. And Eiland — the pride of Zephyrhills — made his mark, showing he was ready, willing and able to handle the high-profile, high-pressure job of being the Yankees pitching coach.

"He's not afraid," general manager Brian Cashman said. "And he knows the job at hand."

Eiland's success as a coach may be rooted as much as anything in his lack of success as a player, compiling a 12-27 record and 5.74 ERA in 92 games over parts of 10 seasons with the Yankees, Padres and hometown Rays.

"I think one of the things that Dave had to do was he had to fight for everything that he got," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "He had to tinker, and mechanics were extremely important to his success. He had to fight to get up here and to try to stay up here.

"There's a toughness about him. He's a great communicator. I think he's great mechanically. He's great giving our pitchers a game plan. It didn't come easy for Dave as a pitcher. He had to look for every advantage that he could come up with."

Eiland, 43, doesn't dispute the assessment. The son of longtime and well-respected police chief Bill Eiland, he came out of Zephyrhills High, played at Florida and South Florida and was a seventh-round pick of the Yankees, taking immense pride in what he was able to accomplish with limited abilities.

"In reality, I gave it all I could," Eiland said. "I threw 87-89 miles an hour, but I thought I had a pretty good feel for pitching and for my delivery. I had to be almost perfect when I pitched to be successful. I didn't have that God-given talent, the 90-plus mph fastball, things like that. But I felt like I had everything else."

When Eiland was finally done playing in 2002, after needing two Tommy John elbow surgeries within a year, he took what for many players is a natural step into coaching. Just that for Eiland, said Mark Newman, the Tampa-based Yankees exec who first hired him, it was more natural given his aptitude and attitude. "He had it," Newman said.

There's a lot the Yankees liked as Eiland worked his way from short-season ball to the big-league staff in five years and now into the World Series: what he knew, how he picked up and processed the info and how he shared it.

And, as much as anything, his ability to relate to and handle a diverse staff, from young studs he coached on the way up, such as Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes, and veteran stars he played with, such as Andy Pettitte (Triple-A Columbus, 1994).

"He knows there's different ways to communicate the particulars and that the audience will be different," Cashman said. "And he's walked through it — he's been in their shoes."

To Pettitte, Eiland is a good listener. "Almost like a wife," Pettitte said.

But to Chamberlain, Eiland does most of the talking. "He's not afraid to kick you in the behind," Chamberlain said. "And he means it when he comes at you."

There's a red streak of competitiveness in there, too, so much so that when Eiland calls home to Wesley Chapel after every game to talk to his wife and two teenage daughters, he's mentally exhausted, essentially having thrown every pitch with his pitcher.

That extends beyond baseball, too.

"So we got a foosball table last year, and it's kind of funny because I grew up with one and David didn't know that," said Sandi, his wife of nearly 20 years. "We started playing and I'm smoking him, I'm kicking his butt. We're all laughing; the girls are tickled to death.

"David was beside himself — he's like, where is this coming from. He backs away, and he looks at us and says, 'I'm a world-class athlete, I can do this.' And I swear if we had time to stay there for a couple days and not move, he would have done it."

Determination, that's part of his story, too.

"I've always dreamed big," Eiland said. "I've never put any restrictions on myself ever. And I've never accepted failure. I think that's a big part of it, too."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

Struggles as player help New York Yankees pitching coach Dave Eiland excel as teacher 10/26/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 27, 2009 8:53am]
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