“FENWAY'S BEST PLAYERS”


 
1978-1984, 1998
#18   DENNIS ECKERSLEY

Dennis Lee Eckersley was born October 3, 1954, in Oakland, California, the middle child born to Wallace and Bernice Eckersley (he had an older brother Wally and a younger sister, Cindy). Wallace Eckersley worked as a warehouse supervisor, and Bernice worked as a keypunch operator. Eckersley was a standout athlete at Washington High School in Fremont, California. Cleveland selected him in the third round, (#50 pick overall) of the June amateur draft in 1972.  Three days after graduating from high school, the 17-year-old Eckersley embarked on his professional baseball career, reporting to Reno of the Class A California League. He stayed there for two years, honing his skill. The next season, he started off on fire at AA San Antonio of the Texas League. He won his first eight decisions for the Brewers, including a seven inning one-hitter against Shreveport. He ended the season posting a 14-3 mark with a 3.40 ERA.

His effort propelled him right past Triple A ball, and to the Indians in 1975. New manager Frank Robinson liked what he saw of Eck in spring training, and convinced General Manager Phil Seghi to keep him on the varsity. Eckersley made his first start at home against the three-time World Champion Oakland Athletics on May 25, 1975. It was a baptism by fire of sorts, and Eckersley proved that his promotion to the rotation would be heavenly. He blanked the A’s on three hits, striking out six in the 6-0 win.  To prove it was no fluke, Eckersley won his next start in Oakland on May 31. Pitching before family and friends, Eckersley scattered six hits and struck out five in the 4-1 victory. He finished the year with a 13-7 record and a 2.60 ERA. He led Cleveland's starters in ERA and the entire staff in strikeouts (152). He was named American League Rookie Pitcher of the Year by The Sporting News.

Over the next two seasons, Eckersley pitched just a tad over .500. He posted career-high numbers in strikeouts (200 in 1976 and 191 in 1977) and was named to his first All-Star Game in 1977 at Yankee Stadium.  Although it appeared Eckersley, at 23, would be a star pitcher, rumors persisted that the Indians were trying to move him. The front office noted that Eckersley gave up the long ball much too often, had trouble against left-handed batters, and that base runners ran too easily on him. Boston was seeking a number one starter to their staff, believing that was the final piece of the puzzle to overtake New York in the East Division. So on March 30, 1978, Cleveland sent Eckersley and catcher Fred Kendall to the Red Sox for pitchers Rick Wise and Mike Paxton, infielder Ted Cox, and catcher Bo Diaz.

Eckersley went from a perennial second division club to a contender. He lived up to his “Number 1 Starter” billing by posting a 20-8 record with a 2.99 ERA. Nine of his victories came after a Red Sox loss, each time giving Boston a victory when they needed it. He was the consistent starter Zimmer had craved. He also adapted quite well to Fenway Park, posting a record of 11-1 at home.  For the Red Sox, it was a streaky year. They held a seven-game lead over New York on August 30, then went on a 3-14 skid to trail the Yankees by 3 ½ games. Boston put together a hot streak of 12-2, winning their last eight in a row to catch the Yankees on the final day of the schedule and force a single-game playoff, won by New York. In the hot streak down the stretch, Eck won four straight games.

Eckersley continued to pitch well in 1979, posting 17 wins. From July 11 to August 14, he won eight straight games, with the first seven of those being complete game victories. He developed a sore arm and won only one game the rest of the year.  But the soreness never did subside and Eckersley also developed back and shoulder injuries over the next few years in Boston. He still pitched well on occasion, as shown by a one-hitter he threw at Toronto on September 26, 1980. He struck out nine Blue Jays, giving up a solo home run to John Mayberry for their only hit in the 3-1 win. But home runs continued to plague him. Not counting the strike-shortened season of 1981, Eckersley surrendered 142 round-trippers in five full seasons with Boston.

The Chicago Cubs found themselves in the unlikeliest position of first place early in the 1984 season. They had a strong offensive club, but injuries to Dick Ruthven and Scott Sanderson depleted their mound corps. General Manager Dallas Green went looking for help, and on May 25, he dealt first baseman Bill Buckner to Boston for Eckersley and infielder Mike Brumley. The Cubs won the National League’s Eastern Division, returning to the postseason for the first time since 1945. Chicago dealt Dennis to Oakland before the start of the 1987 season on April 3. He was returning home, although he was unsure of what his role on the A’s would be. Manager Tony La Russa dispatched Eck to the bullpen. When stopper Jay Howell developed arm problems, Eck was given the closer role. Howell and Eckersley shared the team lead in saves with 16 apiece, but it was Howell who was traded after the season as part of a three-team deal that brought Bob Welch from the Dodgers.

The Athletics were putting together a juggernaut in the American League. They had offensive firepower and the one constant to the team was Dennis Eckersley in the back end of the bullpen. La Russa used Eckersley as his stopper, inventing the one-inning closer. In keeping his work down to one inning, his arm problems were a distant memory. In 1988 Eck led the majors in saves with 45, as the Athletics captured the first of three straight pennants. Over the next two years he was so magnificent, he lowered his ERA by almost one whole run each season, and in 1990 it was a miniscule 0.61 in 63 appearances, all in relief. From 1988 to 1991, he surrendered just 16 walks. The 1992 season may have been his best yet when he again led the league in saves with 51 with an ERA of 1.91. Opponents hit a meager .158 against Eck with runners in scoring position. He swept all of the postseason awards. The Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) awarded Eckersley the Cy Young Award and Most Valuable Player. The Sporting News named him AL Pitcher of the Year and AL Fireman of the Year. He was also the recipient of the Rolaids Relief Man of the Year.

La Russa left Oakland after the 1995 season to take over as manager in St. Louis. Eckersley soon followed when Oakland traded him to the Cardinals for pitcher Steve Montgomery on February 13, 1996. Eckersley finished his career in 1998, pitching one season for the Red Sox. Dennis Eckersley was inducted into the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown on July 25, 2004.

In retirement, Eckersley did not move far from the game that he loved. He was a studio analyst for NESN, offering postgame comments on the Red Sox. He was nicknamed “Honest Eck” for his blunt observations. He has also worked as a studio analyst for TBS, working mostly in the postseason.