After an early career as a brash young flamethrower and a seven-year spell as a mediocre starter, The Eck was reborn in Oakland as a dominating bullpen stopper. In the process, he became the only player in major league history to record 100 complete games and 200 saves.
Eckersley broke into the majors with the Cleveland Indians in 1975 as a somewhat brash young pitcher with longish hair and 90+ mile-per-hour fastball. It was a promising, if not wholly satisfying campaign. Maintaining a 2.60 ERA with a 13-7 won-loss record, Eck was named AL Rookie Pitcher of the Year. Over the next two seasons the offbeat wiseguy averaged 14 wins and 196 strikeouts.
On May 30, 1977 he pitched a devastating 12-strikeout no-hitter against the California Angels. True to form, Eckersley traded barbs with opposing hurler Frank Tanana throughout the game, and when the Angels’ Gil Flores came to bat with two outs in the ninth, Eckersley continued to rant. “I was ready, but Gil kept on stepping out of the [batter’s box],” Eckersley later told the Contra Costa Times. “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.”
In 1978 Eckersley was traded to Boston in a deal that brought Bo Diaz and Rick Wise to Cleveland. In his first year with the Red Sox, he enjoyed his best season as a starter with a 20-8 record and a 2.99 ERA. Eckersley was particularly stunning down the stretch, winning his last four starts with complete games, including a crucial three-hitter vs. New York in late September, as the Red Sox attempted to stave off the Yankees’ challenge for the AL East crown. Despite Eckersley’s best efforts, the teams ended the regular season in a tie, and the Yankees went on to win the division in an intense one-game playoff at Fenway Park.
Though Eckersley won 17 games the following year, the Red Sox did not threaten in the East again and Eckersley’s numbers began to sag. After four mediocre seasons in Boston (including a poor 9-13, 5.61 ERA tour in ’83), Eckersley was traded to the Chicago Cubs for Bill Buckner early in the 1984 season. Being traded from one seemingly cursed loser (the Red Sox haven’t won a World Series since 1918) to another (the Cubs’ last trophy is circa 1908) seemed to invigorate Eckersley. His ERA improved dramatically from 5.01 to 3.03, helping the Cubs make the playoffs for the first time since 1945. Eckersley started Game Three of the 1984 NLCS with the Cubs needing only one victory in three games to reach the World Series. He faltered early and gave up five runs in 5.1 innings as Chicago went on to lose Game Three, and eventually the series, to the San Diego Padres.
The following two seasons saw Eckersley’s fastball lose velocity and his personal life take a nosedive as he struggled with alcohol abuse. Ironically, the Red Sox reached the World Series in 1986, in large part due to the pitching services of Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd. As teammates in Boston, Eckersley (whom some beat writers had referred to as “Disco Denny” during his drinking years) had given Boyd the cryptic nickname because of Boyd’s penchant for beer.
In 1987 Eckersley was traded to Oakland, where A’s manager Tony LaRussa planned to use him as a set-up man/long reliever. Yet after an injury to Jay Howell, Eckersley got the closer’s job. His performance surprised everyone. After the All-Star break, Eckersley recorded 13 saves and struck out 51 batters — with just five walks — in just 43.2 innings pitched. Abandoning his wild, fireballing style, pinpoint control became the signature of the new Eck.
The following year was a renaissance for the entire A’s ballclub. Sluggers Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire fueled a devastating offense, but it was Eckersley’s cool and efficient confidence which defined the team. His shaggy long hair and trimmed mustache, combined with his 45 saves (one short of the ML record) and 70 strikeouts evoked memories of the flamboyant arrogance of Oakland’s three-time world champions of the early seventies. Unfortunately, the team that lived by Eck, died by Eck. After Eckersley gave up a ninth-inning, pinch-hit two-run homer to Kirk Gibson to end Game One of the 1988 World Series, the A’s collapsed to the seemingly out-manned Dodgers, losing the series in five games.
Nevertheless, Eckersley dominated the American League for the next five years. In 1989 he saved 33 games with a 1.56 ERA, giving up only three walks against 55 strikeouts. He also won his first World Series, recording the final out of the A’s four-game sweep of the San Francisco Giants. Energized by the championship, Eckersley followed with his best season to date. In 73.1 innings pitched, Eckersley allowed exactly five earned runs (a 0.61 ERA) en route to saving 48 games. Perhaps more phenomenally, he managed to strike out 73 batters while walking only four.
Even that performance paled in comparison to Eckersley’s 1992 campaign. Eck started off the season with a major-league record 36 consecutive saves. By the end of the year, he had tallied 51. Even more impressive, he only walked 11 batters — six intentionally — while striking out 93. With his last save of the season, Eckersley broke Dan Quisenberry’s AL record of 239.
Eckersley never regained the magic he captured in ’92. In each of his next three seasons he failed to bring his ERA below four and after a disappointing 1995 season was traded to the Cardinals for Steve Montgomery. In St. Louis, he was reunited with ex-Oakland manager La Russa. Despite nagging injuries and a 42-year-old body, Eckersley returned to his old form, saving 30 games and walking only six batters in 60 innings pitched. During the Cardinals’ post-season run, Eckersley recorded four saves without allowing a run and did not appear in a Cardinals loss.
After another 30+ save year for St. Louis in 1997, Eck signed with the Boston Red Sox. He failed to beat out Tom Gordon for the closer’s job in spring training and spent a large part of the first half on the DL. After recording just one save in fifty innings of work Eckersley finally called it quits. (DM)