Apr. 25—Baseball is a very vocal game.
There are mound conferences between catchers and pitchers. Constant chatter and banter on the field:
“Hey batter, batter!”
“Let’s turn two here.”
It can be very difficult for a player who stutters.
That was the case for Matt Eckenrode. But the Scranton High School senior worked hard to overcome his speech disorder and has emerged as a leader for the Knights this season.
He previously let his play on the field speak for him. Now, he talks the talk as well.
Two years ago, Scranton coach Jamie Higgins thought Eckenrode was just a quiet kid; a sophomore on a senior-laden team, knowing his place and deferring to the older players.
“If a kid is a soft-spoken kid and is just, ‘Yes, coach. No, coach,’ you’re all right with that. That’s how he was,” Higgins said. “It wasn’t until you started getting into conversations with him that you became aware of it.”
Eckenrode said he didn’t really notice his stutter until about sixth grade. When he would get around new groups of people — such as going from grade school to junior high to high school — that’s when he would get teased and picked on, causing him to withdraw.
“It definitely was tough growing up and going through my first 2 1/2 years of high school,” Eckenrode said. “I didn’t want to put myself out there. I didn’t want to volunteer in class and my grades would suffer from it.”
Junior year of high school, he started going to speech therapy and it helped him a lot. He learned a technique called easy onset, where you hold out the first sound of the word.
“To avoid repeating myself, I would just say one long word so it sounded more fluent. That was the big thing that helped me,” Eckenrode said. “I would also prepare myself before I would talk. Run it through my head and then go for it instead of just blindly talking.”
While his stutter didn’t affect his performance on the field, it affected his ability to make friends on the team. Now, he is much more talkative. He will pass along advice to his teammates in the dugout that might help them with an at-bat.
Higgins notices the difference.
“We bring in kids from North, East and South (Scranton), so they don’t know each other as well as if they went to a Dunmore or Old Forge and played together since Little League,” Higgins said. “But all the kids on our team look up to Matt. They joke around with him and he jokes around with them.
“Even if you didn’t know him as well as some of his friends, if you saw him at practice and saw how he practices, you really can’t help but admire him. That’s how you want to play baseball, how Matt Eckenrode approaches practice and games.”
Scranton (0-4) has had a rough start to the season. COVID-19 concerns limited the Knights to just one game (April 5) until last week. They have since played three more.
Upon return, they were left without a shortstop. So Higgins turned to the versatile Eckenrode, even though he never previously played the position in a game.
“It’s not an easy position to play,” Higgins said. “You have pickoff plays, first-and-third situations to be aware of, know where to go on cutoffs. He’s learning on the fly, but he’s allowing us some flexibility because of his athleticism.”
As a sophomore, Eckenrode batted .367 and was a Lackawanna League Division I coaches all-star honorable mention as an outfielder. When Higgins approached him about the position change, he was all for it.
“I feel like it wasn’t too hard to adapt to the position,” said Eckenrode, who is batting .455 through four games this season with one double, one triple, four runs and three RBIs. “I’m confident moving forward. It’s a lot more mental playing shortstop.”
Major League Baseball star outfielder George Springer stutters. During the All-Star Game in 2017, he wore a microphone and did an in-game interview, hoping to send a message to others who stutter. He also is a spokesman for the Stuttering Association for the Young.
After graduation, Eckenrode plans to go to University of Scranton and study kinesiology. If his class load permits, he would like to play baseball in college.
Most of all, he wants to share his story and help others who stutter.
“If I meet kids who have stutters or other speech impediments, I’d like to give them confidence and tell them they’ll be all right,” Eckenrode said. “Eventually they’ll overcome it and move forward.”
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