- October 3, 1954
- 6' 2"
- 190 lbs
- Major League Debut:
- 4-12-1975 with CLE
- Allstar Selections:
- 1988 ALCS, 1988 RR, 1992 CY, 1992 MVP, 1992 RR, 1992 TSN
- Hall of Fame:
One of only two pitchers in Major League history to have both a 20-win season and a 50-save season (John Smoltz is the other), Dennis Eckersley actually had two distinct careers in baseball. Splitting his first 12 seasons between the Cleveland Indians, Boston Red Sox, and Chicago Cubs, the hard-throwing righthander was an effective, albeit, somewhat erratic starting pitcher who compiled an overall record of 151-128. After joining the Oakland Athletics in 1987, Eckersley evolved into one of the greatest relief pitchers in baseball history, revolutionizing the role of the "closer" for future generations of relievers.
Born in Oakland, California on October 3, 1954, Dennis Lee Eckersley arrived in the big leagues in 1975 brimming with self-confidence, and with a huge chip on his shoulder. After attending Washington High School in Fremont, California, Eckersley was selected by the Cleveland Indians in the third round of the 1972 amateur draft. He spent the next two-and-a-half years working his way up through the Cleveland farm system, earning a spot on the team's major league roster at the start of the 1975 campaign. Eckersley pitched effectively his first year in the league, compiling a record of 13-7 and a 2.60 ERA, en route to capturing American League Rookie Pitcher of the Year honors. Sporting a moustache, long hair, and an inordinate amount of brashness for someone so young, the 20-year-old flamethrower often stared down opposing batters, speaking to them from time to time, and occasionally pointing his finger in their direction after striking them out.
Eckersley followed up his outstanding rookie year by winning a total of 27 games for the mediocre Indians over the course of the next two seasons, while finishing among the league leaders in strikeouts both years and earning his first selection to the All-Star Team in 1977. He had his finest performance on May 30, 1977, when he hurled a 12-strikeout no-hitter against the California Angels. Displaying the cockiness that characterized his personality at the time, Eckersley traded barbs throughout the contest with opposing pitcher Frank Tanana. Eckersley continued to rant when California's Gil Flores stepped to the plate with two men out in the ninth inning. The righthander later recalled, "I was ready, but Gil kept on stepping out of the batter's box. I pointed at him, 'Get in there. They're not here to take your picture. You're the last out. Get in there.' I was pretty cocky back then."
After winning 40 games in his three years with the Indians, Eckersley was dealt to Boston in a trade necessitated by an awkward situation that developed in Cleveland when Eckersley's wife left him for teammate Rick Manning. Pitching for the contending Red Sox, Eckersley had his two finest seasons as a starter, compiling records of 20-8 and 17-10 in 1978 and 1979, respectively, while posting an ERA of 2.99 each year. Yet, the memory of his failed relationship continued to haunt him, as did the pressure he placed on himself as the ace of Boston's pitching staff. In order to rid himself of his personal demons, Eckersley began drinking heavily.
The combination of Eckersley's excessive drinking and the decreased velocity on his fastball caused his performance to suffer the next few seasons. He posted a combined record of only 43-48 for the Red Sox from 1980 to 1983, sporting an earned run average well in excess of 4.00 in all but one of those years. After finishing just 9-13 with a 5.61 ERA in 1983, Eckersley was traded to the Chicago Cubs in early 1984 for Bill Buckner. The righthander experienced a resurgence in Chicago, winning 10 games over the final four months of the season and compiling an ERA of 3.03, to help the Cubs advance to the postseason for the first time in 39 years. Despite developing tendinitis in his throwing arm and spending part of the year on the disabled list, Eckersley pitched well for Chicago again in 1985, going 11-7 with a 3.08 ERA.
Drinking more heavily than ever before, Eckersley had a disastrous 1986 campaign, finishing the year with a record of 6-11 and an ERA of 4.57. The 32 year-old righthander's poor performance prompted the Cubs to trade him to the Oakland A's for three unheralded minor leaguers prior to the start of the following season, in a move that signified just how far his value had plummeted.
However, unbeknownst to everyone in the Chicago front office, Eckersley checked himself into the Edgehill Newport Treatment Center in Rhode Island during the offseason. During his time there, he learned how to handle his alcoholism, and, also, how to deal with his personal problems in a more constructive manner.
Free of the demons that plagued him for so long, Eckersley arrived in Oakland with a clear head and a positive attitude. A's manager Tony La Russa initially intended to use his new pitcher as a set-up man/long reliever. But an injury to Jay Howell forced Eckersley to assume the role of closer instead. Eckersley thrived in his new role, compiling 13 of his 16 saves after the All-Star break, and striking out 51 batters in 44 innings of work, while walking only five batters. Always a control pitcher, Eckersley developed an even greater mastery of the strike zone by learning to sacrifice a certain amount of velocity for accuracy.
Reflecting back on the lessons he learned, Eckersley later stated, "It took me a few years to realize that throwing harder wasn't always better...You figure out that, if you don't throw it as hard as you can, you can put it where you want. It's more important where you put it."
Firmly entrenched as the A's closer by 1988, Eckersley began a tremendous five-year run during which he established himself as the dominant closer in the game. He helped lead Oakland to the first of three consecutuve American League pennants in 1988, topping the circuit with 45 saves, compiling a 2.35 ERA, and striking out 70 batters in 73 innings of work, while allowing only 52 hits and walking just 11 men. Yet, the moment in 1988 for which Eckersley is best remembered is the ninth-inning, pinch-hit, two-run, game-winning homer he allowed to a hobbled Kirk Gibson in Game One of the World Series. The blast provided all the momentum the Dodgers needed to upset the heavily-favored A's in five games in the Fall Classic.
Showing no ill effects from Gibson's blow, Eckersley pitched brilliantly for Oakland the following year, helping the A's win their second straight pennant by compiling a perfect 4-0 record, 33 saves, and a 1.56 ERA, while amazingly walking only three batters in 58 innings of work. He also excelled during the postseason, allowing only one earned run in just over seven innings of work, and recording the final out of Oakland's four-game sweep of San Francisco in the World Series.
Eckersley had his two best years in 1990 and 1992, seasons in which he proved to be practically unhittable. During the first of those campaigns, he compiled 48 saves and a 0.61 ERA, while striking out 73 batters, allowing only 41 hits and walking just four men in 73 innings of work. By allowing a total of only 45 men to reach base, Eckersley became the only relief pitcher in baseball history to have more saves than baserunners allowed. After another outstanding year in 1991, Eckersley reached his apex in 1992. In addition to winning seven games and compiling a 1.91 ERA, he saved a league-leading 51 games, struck out 93 men in 80 innings of work, and permitted only 11 batters to reach base via bases on balls, while also allowing only 62 hits. Eckersley's extraordinary performance earned him both the A.L. Cy Young and MVP Awards, making him one of just a handful of relief pitchers to win both trophies in the same season.
Manager Tony La Russa expressed his admiration not only for Eckersley's pitching ability, but, also, for his inner strength, when he said, "He taught me something about fear. Eck tells me he spends the whole game being afraid. Fear makes some guys call in sick, or be tentative. He uses fear to get him ready for every stinking time he pitches."
The 1992 campaign turned out to be Eckersley's last dominant season. Although he continued to place among the league leaders in saves in each of the next five years, he pitched much less effectively, allowing many more men to reach base, and seeing his ERA rise dramatically. When La Russa took over as manager in St. Louis prior to the start of the 1996 season, he brought Eckersley with him. The aging reliever spent two years in St. Louis, before finishing out his career back in Boston in 1998. He retired at season's end with a career won-lost record of 197-171, an ERA of 3.50, and a total of 390 saves. Eckersley led the American League in saves twice, converting at least 30 save opportunities eight times, and reaching the 40-save plateau on four separate occasions. He finished in the top five in the Cy Young voting four times, and he also placed in the top five in the league MVP balloting three times. Eckersley appeared in six All-Star games, being named to the the A.L. squad twice as a starter and four times as a reliever.
Following his playing career, Eckersley became a studio analyst for the Boston Red Sox on NESN. As such, he provides post-game coverage, working to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the team's play. He also has a multi-year deal with TBS to serve as an analyst for the station's post-season coverage.
On January 6, 2004, Eckersley became the first relief pitcher to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. Reflecting back on his good fortune, Eckersley stated, "They developed a platform for me to put up another 12 years, and that was my ticket to Cooperstown. Those were the best years of my life. It was like magic."
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