Albuquerque’s prep baseball community, and Sandia High School in particular, was shocked Wednesday by the news that Matadors baseball coach Chris Eaton had died.
Eaton died on Monday. He was 35 years old.
“He lost his battle with mental illness,” his younger brother Michael told the Journal on Wednesday. “We really want to convey that this is a serious problem and it’s more widespread than (people) think.”
Eaton has coached the Matadors since May 2017. Last season, he led Sandia to the Class 5A state championship game, where they lost to Carlsbad. Leading Sandia to a state title was one of Eaton’s greatest professional aspirations.
“It’s pretty hard to take Chris away from coaching and baseball,” said Michael Eaton. “That was his passion. He understood the game so well, and he was a master at teaching kids about competition, failure, and becoming a man. And he emphasized academics above all.”
Eaton – who played with Sandia Prep and Cibola in high school and collegiately with Eastern New Mexico – was friendly and outgoing, curious and motivated. And he was quite a fly fisherman, his family said. Those who knew him celebrated his life contribution on Wednesday.
“He was a damn good competitor,” said his father, Scott Eaton. “He felt it was healthy and important and useful for young people today to do things in a respectful way and to play by the rules. … Whatever he set out to do, he always took it on 100 percent.”
Normally a bundle of positive energy, Eaton was immensely popular with players and peers alike. He also taught physical education at Sandia.
“It’s a great loss for Sandia, her players, her family, her community, but also for New Mexico baseball,” said Ron Murphy, longtime baseball coach at Rio Rancho High. “I admired Chris. He wanted this program to be the best in the state and he wanted to win a state championship. He was a phenomenal person.”
His father said: “Chris was a smart guy and he cared about the world. He wasn’t just a gym teacher and baseball coach.”
Eaton was born and raised in Albuquerque, and baseball was woven into his fabric. At his last meeting with the late Sandia trainer John Gunther, Gunther, who was then dying, had said the following, according to Eaton’s brother Eaton:
“He said, ‘I’ll look down on you if you win a state title.’ And Chris took that to heart. With this thought he went to the field every day.”
Numerous schools across the state expressed their condolences via social media. Several former Eaton players took to Twitter to express their sadness at the death of their coach.
“I will miss all the hours that (he) spent helping me and other NM athletes to become a better version of themselves both athletically and as individuals. Rest coach, you’re in a better place,” Adrien Martin wrote.
I will miss all the hours I put into helping myself and other NM athletes become a better version of themselves, both athletically and as individuals. Rest Coach, you’re in a better place.🕊️ https://t.co/5l5jRloPww
— Adrien Martin (@adrien5martin) November 23, 2022
“A great mentor and someone who believed in me from day one playing at Sandia. Rest easy Coach,” Matt Romero wrote on Twitter.
Aiden May, another former Matador player, wrote: “Really terrible news, you will be missed Chris. Sleep calmly.”
Eaton also spent a few years as a collegiate assistant coach in the area (West Texas A&M, New Mexico Highlands, Colorado School of Mines, Texas A&M in Texarkana) before moving to high school, and he was once an assistant coach to Ray Birmingham at varsity from New Mexico.
Eaton was also a former assistant coach at Sandia Prep, where he played before joining Cibola. Occasionally he worked as a broadcast analyst for both UNM baseball games and the Connie Mack World Series in Farmington.
Funeral services are yet to come; Scott Eaton said the family would like to arrange a memorial service for the public sometime in December.
“He was such a selfless, passionate, curious, determined and courageous competitor,” said Michael Eaton, adding, “He was such a beautiful person.”