How the A's and Eck "Saved" Each Other - part 2

(Thanks to everyone for your kind comments in Part 1, and for sharing your Eck stories).

"All I knew was that Dennis was a great competitor," says manager Tony La Russa. "We put him in the bullpen to see what would happen, and (pitching coach) Dave Duncan got the idea that he'd make a great reliever."

Eck 02

Dennis Eckersley was a stud in any language.

 

Rehabilitated and rejuvenated, Eckersley returned to his roots determined to get his life and career back on track.  Years later he would confess that the transformation was not nearly as easy as it looked:

"The trade came at just the right time, but none of this was overnight. I didn't just become a closer, and I didn't just become a new person. I wasn't easy to be around, so Nancy and I kept our distance that year. In fact, if you asked me for one image from '87, it would be me sitting by the pool, with a Walkman on my ears and tears in my eyes."

As for the team he left behind:

"The Cubs didn't know what they were giving up.  They couldn't have known really.  During the off-season, I had decided to change my life and I went through rehab and got sober.  When I came through it successfully I knew I had a second chance and I was a man on a mission."

 Eck 01

A man on a mission: Eckersley goes after his next victim.

The A's were men on a mission in April 1988, and with Eckersley comfortably settled into his new role of closer, the team ran off 14 straight wins, at the time an Oakland record.  Eck finished with 45 saves that season, earning his first of three Fireman of the Year awards.  He also discovered a new appreciation of a job he once frowned upon: 

Eck 1988-g

Turns out saving ballgames had its rewards. 

"It's a weird feeling.  You walk off the field and everyone shakes your hand.  You've only faced a few batters- three or four, sometimes five. And you feel like you've pitched the full nine innings.  I was only around to shake hands six or seven times a year.  Now I'm getting congratulations every time out.  You couldn't ask for anything better.  The importance of it all.  I love it."

His manager and teammates loved it, too:

"It was eye-popping just watching him work," says La Russa. "He was so cool, so competitive. It was just boom, boom, boom, and you're out."

"He gives the whole team a burst of energy," says catcher Terry Steinbach.

The A's went into the ALCS as the class of the major leagues, and winners of 104 games during the regular season.  Eckersley was called on to preserve a one-run lead in the eighth of Game 1 in Boston, but faced danger in the ninth with two men on and two out, and Wade Boggs at the plate.  La Russa would say later that these were the type of games that "make your breath stink."

Eck 1988-d


Eck surely left a sour taste in the mouth of the Fenway Faithful by striking out Boggs for the A's first playoff win since the Billy Ball days.

"There was this weird frozen moment when I looked at him as if to say, 'How did you swing and miss?'" said Eck later. "And he looked at me as if to say, 'How did you strike me out?' It seemed like about 10 seconds, but it was only a flash."

Eck 1988-b

 

The next day Oakland took a 2-0 series lead, as Eck closed out a 3-2 win.  Two nail-biters in Fenway, two one-run victories, two saves for Eckersley.  It was more of the same on the West Coast with Eck's strikeout of Jim Rice finishing off a 10-6 comeback win (the A's were down 5-0 early), and the sweep was made complete on a glorious Sunday afternoon.  For the fourth time in as many games, Eckersley got the save, and earned MVP honors for his work.  He was also headed to the World Series for the first time in his 14-year career, something that he could not have foreseen less than two years prior while in rehab at Edgehill Newport.

"The toughest thing I've ever done in my life is walk through those doors. I know now it was a blessing. But at the time I felt defeated."

 Eck 1988-f

At the center of the sweep of the Sox in the ALCS was Eckersley.

Yes, the A's were going to the World Series for the first time since I was a second grader at Woodrow Wilson.  This would be a Series that I could experience for myself, rather than depend on my older siblings for their story of the "good old days".  No, this World Series would be all mine to savor.  And what was not to savor?  The A's were clicking on all cylinders after sweeping the Red Sox, and their stars- Dave Stewart, Jose Canseco, and Dennis Eckersley- were shining bright.  That their Series opponent, the Los Angeles Dodgers, appeared to have destiny on their side mattered little to me.  They were going to make short work of LA, just like 1974, but this time I was going to be there.

Eck 1988-h

Dennis Eckersley chats with Hendu before Game 1 of the 1988 Series.
(Photo courtesy of Oakland A's/Michael Zagaris)

 

I am going to assume that you all know what happens next.  It is quite simply the lowest I have ever felt as an A's fan.  After Eck retired the first two batters in the bottom of the ninth of the World Series opener, with Oakland clinging to a 4-3 lead... 

Mike Davis, signed by the Dodgers as a free agent exactly ten months before, inexplicably worked Eckersely for a walk.  Suddenly a hobbling Kirk Gibson emerged from the dugout.  My thought equaled those of every other being on this planet: no way does Gibson do anything but strike out.  I remember Eck getting ahead in the count, I remember thinking how overmatched Gibson looked.  Sometime during the at-bat Davis stole second base.  That made me a little nervous; now a cheapie ties it up.  I know the count went full, and I can remember hearing the roar of the crowd, a sound that reached epic levels when Gibson reached out and hit the most impossible homerun in my lifetime.  The most sickening homerun in my lifetime.  I don't remember who was around me (maybe my younger sister Tricia) but someone screamed; an awful, painful scream.  The rest of the world was probably thinking "Holy crap, did that really happen?" and calling their friends, excitedly.  But not A's fans.  A's fans were left all alone, we wanted to be alone, like Eck walking in a daze off that mound, lost, no one to console him, this man who on a personal level had already known what Hell felt like.

And yet he answered question upon question for nearly an hour after the game.  No excuses.  Just wasn't Eck's style.  In a wonderful Sports Illustrated article written after the 1992 season, Steve Wulf wrote that no one would have been shocked if Eckersley turned to the bottle that night.  It didn't happen:

"My recovery wouldn't have been worth very much if I had blown it on one game."

Eck 1988-i

The other side of that homerun: Eck looks painfully towards the bleachers.
(Photo courtesy of Oakland Athletics - The First Twenty-Five Years)

If there were any doubts as to what Dennis Eckersley meant to A's fans, they were emphatically erased before Game 3 of the World Series, when he was introduced to a thunderous ovation.  Alas, the Dodgers were indeed Destiny's children and, despite falling that night, finished off their shocking upset with victories in the next two games.

Before the 1989 season began, Eckersley was confronted with a challenge to his newfound sobriety that was even greater than the horror of the World Series: his older brother Wallace was convicted for the kidnapping and attempted murder of a 59-year-old woman.  Eck spoke of his bouts with alcoholism at the trial.  Having hurdled yet another personal obstacle, the All-Star closer was left to focus on the ghost of Gibson:

"I think a lot of it, with me, was that I was old enough to appreciate where I was and where I came from. I came back from the dead -- my whole story, you know -- and that helped. In the off-season. It really did."

The first game of '89 played out like the '88 opener: Stew won it, McGwire homered, and Eck closed it out.  Same as it ever was.  The A's shrugged off the absence of Jose Canseco by winning 18 of their first 26 games.  When Big Mac joined his Bash Brother on the DL, Oakland promptly went on a seven-game win streak.  Simply put, Tony La Russa's club did not panic.  If the 70's had the Swingin' A's, the 80's brought us a Swaggerin' version, World Series upsets be damned.  From Stewart's death stare, to Dave Parker's finger wagging around the bases, from the bashes at home plate, to Eckersley's fist pumps, these A's were the team everyone loved to hate.  And that was before the trade that brought Rickey back home.

***

Day after day, alone on the hill
The man with the foolish grin is keeping perfectly still
But nobody wants to know him
They can see that he's just a fool.

- Beatles "Fool on the Hill"

Dennis Eckersley may have looked like he had it all figured out on the mound.  But turmoil bubbled from within.  Eck was afraid, and it is fear which fueled him:

As La Russa has pointed out, Eckersley's secret is not so much external as it is internal. Says the Eck, "Basically I'm scared to death out there."

His good friend Scott Sanderson, the Yankee pitcher who played with Eckersley on the Cubs and the A's, says, "I've never come across anyone else who so openly can let you know everything going on inside. Dennis is pretty candid about his fear of failure, for instance. When he goes out there on the mound, he wants to hurry to get it over with so he can breathe a sigh of relief." Or as A's catcher Jamie Quirk says, "He's so afraid of failure that he's perfect."

"Maybe because I came so close to throwing it all away before, I'm even more frightened. I'm worried about how many more years I can do this. When I go out there, there are, like, two me's. It's an out-of-body thing. Inside, I'm scared. But outside, I like to watch myself put on the cape."

Like Superman?

"No, more like Mighty Mouse. Here I come to save the day."

He never listens to them
He knows that they're the fools
They don't like him
The fool on the hill
 

Eck 1989-d

Mighty Mouse saves the day. 

***

The A's became the first team since the 1984-85 Royals to win consecutive division titles; even with all the injuries (Eck himself missed forty games), they held off the Angels and Royals to claim the crown  But there was still some unfinished business to take care of.

Rickey ran rampant in the first two games of the ALCS as the A's built a 2-0 lead on Toronto.  A win by the Jays in Game 3 only served to anger the A's.  They would not lose again in 1989.

During the season, Eckersley had recorded more saves (33) than hits allowed (32), and had walked only three batters in compiling a 1.56 ERA.  He proved a little more vulnerable in the playoffs, but got the outs he needed as the A's took the series in five games with two one-run victories in Canada.

Drama ensued in the clinching contest.  The locals were at it again, with Rickey walking in the first, stealing second, and scoring on Canseco's single.  Now it was up to Oakland's Stewart and Fremont's Eckersley to seal the deal.  They sure made things interesting.  Stew gave up a one-out homer to Lloyd Moseby (yet another Oakland prep star) in the eighth and a ringing blast by George Bell leading off the ninth, cutting a 4-0 lead in half.  Eckersley entered and allowed a third run on a sacrifice fly.  The game was then held up as the Jays felt that Eck was scuffing the ball, an accusation that he took great exception to.  When play resumed, the closer struck out Junior Felix to end it.  As the A's rushed to the mound, Eckersley pumped his fist towards the Toronto dugout. Back to the Series!

The 1989 World Series took a backseat to the earthquake that struck the area before Game 3 at Candlestick, and rightly so.  But it is unfortunate as it made the A's- a team that laughed in the face of every challenge- an afterthought.  A slew of injuries, the pressures of repeating, and even Mother Nature herself could not derail the A's from their mission.  In a stirring sweep of the San Francisco Giants- they did not trail at any point of the Series- La Russa's club earned what had rudely avoided them the previous October: a World Championship.  Fittingly the man who gloved the final out was the man who wore the face of despair just one season before.  Redemption, at last for Eck.

Eck 1989-c


 

It was more of the same for the A's in 1990, as Eckersley put together a season that was absurd even by his unearthly standards.  In 73 innings pitched, Eck struck out 73 batters, while waking only four.  He gave up nine runs, five earned.  And again he had more saves (48) than hits allowed (41).  His ERA: 0.61.  For the second time in three years the A's topped 100 wins, cementing their status as the Major's model organization.  In the ALCS, they swept the Red Sox, just as they did in 1988.  Eck saved the middle contests, in a series in which Oakland pitchers gave up a single run in each game.  This summed up the ALCS (following Game 2):

Runners at first and third. Was there hope? No, there was Eckersley. The Eck was summoned to face Dwight Evans, and he struck him out on three fastballs. "Up, up and up," Eckersley described them. "He hit a grand slammer off me last year, so I guess we're even."

Eck 1990

Eck receives congratulations after saving Game 2 of the '90 ALCS.
(Photo courtesy of Oakland A's/Michael Zagaris)

 

And for the second time in three years, the unthinkable happened.  It couldn't, could it?  It didn't even take a miracle this time; this time the A's just got beat.  What was this, "Revenge of the Seventies"?  First LA, now Cincinnati.  It wasn't even close.  The Reds rocked Stewart in the opener, 7-0. Eck pitched in the bottom of the tenth of a tied contest in Game 2, and after getting the first out, gave up three straight singles.  Ballgame.  And ultimately a sweep.  Losing to the Dodgers was almost acceptable because it was their first time.  The A's learned from that and you'd swear as long as they were healthy, 1988 would never happen again.  But it did.

After an off-year that saw the A's plummet to fourth place in 1991, the Green and Gold gave it one last go in ‘92; La Russa's last hurrah.  Once again, the A's owed their success to Eck.  In 69 games he earned a league-leading 51 saves and captured both the MVP and Cy Young Award.  Eckersley scoffed at the idea that the award shouldn't go to someone who makes cameo appearances:

"Well, I'm nervous for nine innings."

Eck 1992-c


 

The ALCS featured a rematch between the A's and Jays, but this time Toronto prevailed in six.  The turning point came in a gut-wrenching Game 4, with the A's up 6-1 after seven innings and looking to tie the series.  Then the wheels fell off.

Roberto Alomar opened the eighth with a double. Jeff Parrett relieved Welch and promptly surrendered two singles, the first of which plated Alomar.  La Russa wasn't taking any chances and brought in Eck, who gave up two more singles that scored two more runs.  6-4.  Then Eckersley got the next three to go down and we breathed for a moment.  A two-run lead with three outs to go and surely the worst part was behind us.  Or so we prayed.  After Devon White led off the ninth with a single, the horror that we incurred in 1988 came back to haunt us once more.  Alomar ripped an Eckersley pitch into the right-field seats to tie the game and ripped out our hearts in the process.  Not again.  Not to Eck.  Toronto won the game in extras, and the series officially ended three days later.

In the morgue that was the A's clubhouse, Eckersley willingly bore the blame for, as he called it, "Gibson 2." Then he tried to explain what had happened. "This game is weird, man," he said.

Over in the happy Toronto clubhouse, Alomar shrugged and said, "This is a weird game, my friend."

***

Eck 1995-a


 

Dennis Eckersley went on to more playoff success with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1996, for who he pitched two seasons.  On September 26, 1998- 23 years after his big-league debut- Eck walked to the mound for the last time, with the Boston Red Sox.  It was his 1071st game, more than any other player in history.  He is the only player to amass 150 wins and 100 saves (he finished with  197 and 390, respectively).  For all the personal and profession duress, Eck climbed every mountain as a pitcher: a 20-win season, a no-hitter, a 50-save season, an MVP and Cy Young Award, and a World Series championship.

All of which ultimately led to his greatest achievement: an invite to Cooperstown in 2004.

Even though he played through the 1998 season, the end for Eck, as far as A's fans are concerned, came on a lazy Wednesday afternoon three years prior.

The A's lost their last nine games in ‘95, all away from home, to cement a last-place finish.  But before embarking on the road trip from Hell, they pushed back the clouds and gave their fans- all 11,854 of them- one more day of sunshine.

Mark Purdy of the San Jose Mercury News likened the mood at the Oakland Coliseum to the last day of high school.  It was the "last" something, alright. 

For Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan, it was the last time they would orchestrate a ball game from the A's dugout. 

For owner Walter A. Haas, it was his last day on earth.  The 79-year old owner, who had rescued the franchise and whose team soon became the envy of all of baseball, lost his bout with cancer during that last game of  the homestand.

For Dennis Lee Eckersley, never again would he wear the uniform of his hometown team. And that fact wasn't lost on him as the end of a glorious era neared.  Purdy:

"Sure I thought about that.  Those last few innings in the bullpen, I was looking out toward the outfield and...you know."

But the reminiscing was to be put on hold as a 9-0 lead after eight innings became 9-6 as the Angels threatened to ruin the day.  So La Russa called on Eck, who retired the last two batters to close out the win.  Same as it ever was.  And yet it wasn't, for this was the last save for a team that had saved him some eight years before.

Eck 1995-B


 

Asked what was going through his mind as "Celebration" blared as it often did during the glory years of the late ‘80's, Eck equated the song to his career in Oakland:

"Was I thinking about that?  Yeah I was looking around and thinking about..."

Eck made a sideways wave with his hand.  The goodbye kind.  The saddest kind.

Finally, he closed with the same style as he finished off games:

"I'll never forget this."

I won't either, Eck. 

How could I?

 

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