Michigan State head baseball coach Jake Boss Jr. meandered his way over to an MSU football practice last fall. There, also observing the practice, was Jordan Main, a well-known donor and a friend of Boss. Main just so happened to also be a friend of former MLB outfielder and 2019 World Series champion Adam Eaton.
So, Boss decided to take a shot in the dark, asking about Eaton, knowing that he recently retired from his playing career.
“We got to talking,” Boss said. “And I just thought if he's not playing, maybe he'd be interested in helping us out a little bit.”
Eaton, meanwhile, was indeed laying low at his home in Brighton, catching up on lost time with his wife and two boys, while also helping out with the Howell baseball program. Boss contacted Eaton, and a day and a half later, Eaton said he was in.
“So, it didn't take too much convincing,” Eaton said. “I love the game of baseball and always kind of wanted to help out and stay in the game.”
However, the path that led to Eaton’s splash hiring as director of player development for the Michigan State baseball team wasn’t as simple as that. In fact, it started about 15 years ago when Eaton was a high school ball player in Springfield, Ohio.
Boss had just been hired as the head coach at Eastern Michigan, where in just one season there (2008), he led Eastern Michigan to an NCAA Tournament appearance. He recruited Eaton to join the Eagles, but Eaton opted to stay closer to home with Miami (Ohio).
The two Mid-American Conference foes faced each other thrice that season, with Boss’ Eastern Michigan taking all three of the games. One year later, Boss was hired as Michigan State’s new head coach. Eaton played three seasons at Miami, losing a fourth time to Boss with his new team at the beginning of the 2010 season.
“I’m not real proud of that,” Eaton said.
Eaton was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 19th round of the 2010 MLB Draft that summer, beginning the start of a respected professional career. He played two seasons with the Diamondbacks until being dealt to the Chicago White Sox, where he played three seasons before being traded to the Washington Nationals in December 2016. Eaton won a World Series with the Nationals in 2019, but saw his numbers slide the next season. He returned to the White Sox ahead of the 2021 season but was released that July and was picked up two days later by the Los Angeles Angels. Eaton played 25 games with the Angels before being released a month later for what turned out to be his final stint in the MLB.
Throughout his career as an outfielder, Eaton batted .276, hit 66 home runs and batted in 319 runs.
“I really didn't follow his career at all,” Boss said. “He went to play at Miami of Ohio and had a good career, but I didn't really know much about him.”
But it was Eaton’s time at Miami that actually laid another root with Michigan State. As a RedHawk, he met his future wife, Katie, who was a softball player at Miami. Her younger brother, Zach Osburn, was a two-time All-Big Ten defenseman on the Michigan State hockey team from 2015 to 2019, so the two of them made many trips to East Lansing to watch Osburn and the Spartans.
“That's where I kind of fell in love with the Spartans and all of the sudden I started following the football team, following the baseball team, just following the athletics through hockey,” Eaton said.
In the fall of 2021, shortly after retiring, Boss invited Eaton to speak to the team ahead of the season. It helped rekindle their relationship.
Then next fall, Eaton was introduced at the team’s first meeting of the school year.
“I was really shocked, but it's been a great surprise for sure,” said junior outfielder Jack Frank.
The Spartans haven’t finished a full season with a winning record since 2017, (MSU went 9-6 in the 2020 season that ended early due to COVID-19) but are 19-10 with two months remaining in the season. They are 6-3 in Big Ten play, most recently taking two out of three games from Ohio State. Junior infielder Brock Vradenburg leads the conference with a .408 batting average and is second with a .496 on-base percentage. He’s also smacked a team-leading eight home runs and fields a 1.213 OPS that ranks third in the Big Ten.
Redshirt junior outfielder Greg Ziegler grew up in the Chicago suburbs and was a White Sox fan growing up. He remembers watching games when Eaton was on the team.
“It’s just a big privilege to be able to have a World Series champ and longtime MLB guy and just a well-rounded, good mind, good personality, good energy, everything," Ziegler said. "Everything you could hope for in a coach and just someone to be around every day when you come to the field.”
As director of player development, Eaton’s job description lists him as “a coaching staff liaison having input on the development of outfield play, baserunning and hitting.” In his eyes, the broad reach also focuses on him teaching intangibles too – such as unique things he’s inherited from his playing career.
“These guys, they're talented baseball players, they are talented minds, but they don't know sometimes just how to put it together to be consistent,” Eaton said. “Baseball for me, there's so much you can't control, but you can control your attitude, you can control your approach, you can control how you lead up to each game, how (you approach) every single at-bat, how you can control what happens after the game. And so, like I guess as head of player development, I've tried to focus on those guys doing the correct things prior to the game and after the game when you can't control the game.”
Eaton said he is learning too, now that he’s on the other side of the clubhouse. He’s talked to many old coaches for advice, including former Detroit Tiger Kirk Gibson, who was Eaton’s manager with the Diamondbacks.
“I mean, gosh, I lean (on) our coaching staff every single day,” Eaton said. “Coach Graham (Sikes) and I, coach (Andrew) Stone, coach Ryan (Krokos), one more intertwine with those guys and I lean on them for information on how we can get the guys ready, how to approach guys a certain way, how to structure drills and recruiting – I mean, it's a whole layer of college baseball that a lot of people don't realize – how to fill a schedule up.”
As for the future, Eaton is unsure whether or not this is the beginning of a coaching career. He’s just focused on living in the moment.
“I'm enjoying the heck out of where I am right now and the guys that we have here and seeing them develop,” Eaton said. “But like I said, to say what's in the future is kind of hard at this point.”