Why Nationals’ Eric Young Jr. views age as benefit in coaching

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When Nationals first base coach Eric Young Jr. walks through Washington’s clubhouse, he sometimes blends in with the players. That could be because he still looks the part.

It’s not uncommon for former players to become coaches, but typically, they have to work their way up through the lower levels for a few years before getting a shot at the majors. Young, though, only had to wait a year.

Young was named Washington’s first base coach late last year, a position he landed after a year-long stint on the coaching staff for the Tacoma Rainiers, the Class AAA affiliate of the Seattle Mariners. Before he was with Tacoma, Young had been playing for the Guerreros de Oaxaca, a team in the Mexican League, but was released in November 2020.

Young, who just turned 37 in late May, is the fourth-youngest first base coach in baseball — only Minnesota’s Hank Conger (34), San Diego’s David Macias (36) and Seattle’s Kristopher Negrón (36) are younger. Even Nelson Cruz, Washington’s designated hitter, is four years older than Young.

Young — whose 10-year MLB career included stints with the Colorado Rockies, New York Mets, Atlanta Braves, New York Yankees and Los Angeles Angels — sees his age as a benefit.

“I’m not so far removed from playing, so I do understand what they’re going through on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “At the same time, I still can move a little bit, so if I need to go out there and really show what I’m trying to explain then I can do that as well. Being closer to the age of the guys makes it a lot of fun and they respond to me a lot quicker and probably can relate to me.”

Young’s responsibilities also include instructing outfield defense and baserunning. Manager Dave Martinez said Young has been “a godsend.”

“People often say, ‘you hired a guy that hasn’t got very much coaching experience,’ ” Martinez said. “But he’s been coached his whole life so he understands, and he’s been really good at it.”

Young credits his rise to the top to being around the game from a young age — his father, Eric Young Sr., played in the majors for 15 years and now serves as first base coach for the Braves.

Young spent years getting live mental reps and picking players’ brains, including his dad’s. Young Sr.’s role as a first base coach didn’t lead to his decision to become one.

“Obviously, I got a great role model, who’s already leading the way, but some things you just kinda take to and feel at ease with doing,” Young said. “And … being the first base coach, working with outfielders, base running, that’s something that always just came natural to me.”

On a typical game day, a laid-back Young greets players with a simple “What’s up, fellas!” before checking in with them about their days and how they’re doing. Before the team takes the field, he meets each player with a personalized handshake.

But Young also makes sure to use the extra time to teach, saying that he expects his young guys to make mistakes, but noted that’s part of the growing process.

He frequently carries an iPad around the clubhouse, searching intently for players at their locker or on a couch. When he finds his target, he gives them tips about an opposing pitcher’s delivery or shows them a scenario he saw play out in games.

Before games, he hits groundballs to the outfielders while they warm up and focuses on their technique, or he will stand behind outfielders like Lane Thomas and give them tips during batting practice.

“Obviously, you can get your work in in BP and the live reads off the bat,” Thomas said. “But he’s really good about just giving us the little things that are going to help us be prepared for the situations on the road in different stadiums.”

Cruz said age doesn’t matter as long as you prepare like he said Young does. The two have developed a bond and mutual respect over the years, so Young said it’s not awkward for him to be coaching Cruz. But how does Cruz feel about it?

“I had a manager who was younger than me, so,” Cruz, who played under the young Twins Manager Rocco Baldelli, said before laughing. “But it doesn’t matter the age if you prepare.”

Young, Cruz said, has “so much knowledge of the game.”

“He is always really well-prepared for his job,” he said. “He always got good information about where the infield and where the outfield is positioned. Well-informed, he gives a lot of energy. He’s one of the best first base coaches I’ve ever played for.”

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