How the A's and Eck "Saved" Each Other - part 1

"Dennis Eckersley was made in Oakland, firmed up in Fremont and raised to his glory in Oakland again.  Nowhere else did he bring people to their feet simply by standing and removing his warm-up jacket, on nothing more than the promise of what was to come.  Which was usually three and home."

- Ray Ratto, Baseball Digest 1996

Indeed.  When Eck removed his jacket, you grabbed yours. Such was the case in a euphoric half-decade of baseball from 1988-92, when every game felt like a playoff game, and to be a fan of those A's was to experience an embarrassment of riches.  Ours was a mood that stemmed from being a part of something special; a surreal feeling of knowing that your team was going to win. 

At the center of so many celebrations was Eckersley who took a businesslike approach in his description of an era gone by (as told to John Hickey, from the book Oakland A's):

"We have a job to do here.  It's not like we're all shocked at where we're standing right now.  We've worked hard to get where we are, and when we go on the field we expect to win.  You know you won't win all of the time, but you expect to, and when we don't it's like, bummer.  It really is.  Others accept losing.  We don't.  We don't ever want to get a feeling for it."

A starter for the majority of twelve seasons, Eckersley's career was resurrected in the second half of the 1987 season as a closer.  Considering where his life- in and out of baseball- was headed, saving games may have, in turn, saved him.

Eck 03

Dennis Eckersley, Hall-of-Fame closer
(photo courtesy of Oakland A's/Michael Zagaris)

Dennis Lee Eckersley was born in Oakland on October 3, 1954; just another in a long list of local boys to make good, including former teammates Rickey Henderson, Dave Stewart, and Carney Lansford.

Fresh out of Washington High School in Fremont, Eckersley was selected in the 3rd round of the 1972 free-agent draft by the Cleveland Indians, with whom he made his Major League debut on April 12, 1975.  After pitching out of the bullpen for his first ten outings, Eckersley was given the unenviable task of facing the three-time World Champion A's in his initial starting assignment.  Undaunted, he tossed a complete-game, three-hit shutout.

 

Eck 1975

Eckersley, pre-70's porn mustache, rookie year
(photo courtesy of www.homeruncards.com/)

 

Almost two years to the day after that stirring start, Eckersley no-hit the California Angels and was awarded a $3500 bonus by the Indians, who also gave $1500 to Eck's catcher that day: Ray Fosse.

***

To me, the appeal of Dennis Eckersley- more than anything else- was his human side.  Too often we put our "heroes" on a pedestal, and make them out to be something they are not.  Eck wore his emotions on his sleeve. He cared, sometimes too much:

"God, did opposing players hate me. But I didn't mind them hooting on me. They didn't bother me. I was emotional, and I was cocky, but I also was real. That was no act."

How intense was Eck?  This tidbit from Sports Illustrated, April 1983:

Before the season began, Eckersley vowed he'd stop giving up homers to banjo hitters, and he specifically named Rance Mulliniks of the Blue Jays as a batter of that ilk. Eckersley faced Mulliniks in the second inning of the opener. Result: Mulliniks came through by bopping a two-run homer.

In their next confrontation, Eckersley hit him.

Eck was someone we could relate to.  He had baggage just like anyone else.  Peter Gammons explains:

 

Major league pitching—and major league drinking—began for Eckersley in 1975. Back then, Scotch 'n' Sirloin wasn't just a restaurant; it was the diet of choice for big leaguers. "I was in the big leagues when I was 20," recalls Eckersley. "How can you grow up while playing big league baseball? Well, I didn't. I don't blame baseball for my drinking, because I was an alcoholic. How does the saying go? Drink to celebrate, drink to drown your sorrows. That was me—to the max."

After three seasons with Cleveland, Eckersley’s life and career took an awkward turn.  On the same day he was traded to Boston in March 1978, his wife Denise pronounced their marriage as over.  Just when things could not possibly get any worse, Eckersley later learned of his wife’s affair with his best friend, and former teammate, Rick Manning.

 

(I remember in the late 70’s how the "bums" in the centerfield bleachers would ride Manning unmercifully, with names like "wife stealer.")

More from Gammons:

The divorce was not yet final in September '78, when Eckersley and (daughter) Mandee, who was two at the time, were reunited for the first time in months at a Baltimore hotel. Watching the two of them, Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk said to a reporter, "Look at Eck's face. There's a 23-year-old kid holding all his real emotions inside him."

 

"I headed for the clubhouse, all teed off," recalls Eckersley (after being removed from a game), "and there at the end of the hallway was my daughter. It was just like The Babe Ruth Story. I broke down."

Broke down is exactly what the Boston Red Sox did in Eckersley's first season with the team, in which he went 20-8 with a 2.99 ERA.  Up 14 games on the Yankees as late as July 19, Boston hosted a four-game set with New York in early September, their lead trimmed to four.  In what is widely known as the "Boston Massacre", the Red Sox were swept by scores of 15-3, 13-2, 7-0, and 7-4.

Eck 1978

Eckersley with Boston at Spring Training, 1978
(photo courtesy of www.redsoxconnection.com/)

 

Eckersely pitched the third contest, entering the day's action with a 9-0 record at home, and had beaten the Yankees three times in a 12-day span earlier in the season.  But the beatings continued.  New York scored all seven of its runs in the fourth, aided by a pop fly into the wind off the bat of Lou Piniella that fell in for an RBI-double.  Three hits, two walks, a wild pitch, and five runs later, and that was all for Eck. 

It would be all for the Red Sox, too, in one of the most memorable collapses in Major League history.

***

More heartbreak awaited Eck in October 1984.  Having been shipped off to Chicago, he arrived in time to see the Cubs take a 2-0 lead on the San Diego Padres in the NLCS.  Just one win away from his team's first World Series since 1945, Eckersley started Game 3.  He didn't make it out of the sixth inning, rocked to the tune of five earned runs on nine hits.  Two days later San Diego completed its improbable comeback at Wrigley to reach the Series for the first time. 

After two subpar seasons in Chicago, Eckersley was a lost cause.  On-field performance was the least of his worries:

"All the day games in Chicago helped do me in," he says. "I was drinking a lot, and by that time I knew I had a problem. I actually quit for a few months before the '85 season, but I couldn't deal with it. I was losing all my self-esteem in self-destruction, yet I couldn't do anything about it."

Thanks to wife Nancy (whom he married in 1980), Eckersley checked in to rehab in January 1987. 

"There was a lot of pain that produced a lot of tears," says the Eck. "I don't think I ever realized all the emotional baggage I'd carried around, but slowly it oozed out of me. I'd always been afraid of not drinking. I was afraid of life being dull. By spring training, I realized I really looked forward to living, where once I just tried to get by."

On April 3, 1987, Eckersley was traded to Oakland for three players who never made it to the majors.  The fortunes of the hometown star and his new team were about to change dramatically.

Part II tomorrow.

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