Saving the Best for Last

Updated: July 20, 2006, 2:26 PM ET
By Mike Puma | Special to

"He was a nervous wreck when he took the mound. Just go look in his locker before he went out to pitch - probably 35 cigarette butts. I knew the more nervous he was, the better he was going to pitch," says Mark McGwire on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

Dennis Eckersley considered it a demotion when the Oakland Athletics made him a reliever in 1987. Figuring he had reached the "twilight" of his career, Eckersley quietly accepted his role. He soon became baseball's standard in the ninth inning and when he retired in 1998, many hailed him as the game's best all-time closer.

Along the way, Eckersley battled alcoholism, an addiction for which he sought treatment in 1987. The turning point came after watching a video of himself drunk around his daughter.

"I had some personal problems in the middle of my career that I overcame," Eckersley said. "It was a hell of a ride."

The ride put him in the Hall of Fame in 2004 as he was the third reliever enshrined (Rollie Fingers and Hoyt Wilhelm were the first two). Eckersley had a successful career as a starter - he had 301 starts before making his first relief appearance - but it was in the bullpen he shined brightest.

Eckersley averaged 38 saves from 1988-95, a stretch in which he fanned 545 and walked only 75. In 1992, Eckersley won the MVP and Cy Young awards after going 7-1 with a 1.91 ERA and 51 saves. His 390 career saves are fifth all-time behind Lee Smith, Trevor Hoffman, John Franco and Mariano Rivera.

"When he became a closer, as he got older, his control got better," said Paul Molitor, who was elected into the Hall of Fame with Eckersley. "He's one of those guys with two pitches [slider and fastball] so good, so accurate, you had to make a concession on one or the other."

But Eckersley is often remembered for the save he didn't get: Game 1 of the 1988 World Series when Kirk Gibson belted a game-winning homer off him.

Eckersley pitched for three pennant winners and earned a world championship ring with Oakland in 1989. A six-time All-Star, he finished his 24-year career with a 197-171 record and a 3.50 ERA. He is the only pitcher with 100 saves and 100 complete games. As a starter with the Cleveland Indians, Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs from 1975-86, he averaged 13 victories.

The second of Wallace and Bernice Eckersley's three children, Dennis was born on Oct. 3, 1954 in Oakland, Calif., and grew up in nearby Fremont. At Washington High School, he played football, basketball and baseball. After he won 29 games in high school, the Cleveland Indians selected him in the third round of the 1972 draft. He spent two seasons at Class A Reno before going 14-3 with a 3.40 ERA for Class AA San Antonio in 1974.

At 20, Eckersley made the Indians' opening-day roster in 1975. In his first start, he pitched a three-hit shutout against Oakland. He set a major league record by beginning his career by not allowing an earned run in 28 2/3 innings. He finished 13-7 with a 2.60 ERA and was named AL Rookie Pitcher of the Year by The Sporting News.

The next season, Eckersley went 13-12 with a 3.43 ERA and struck out 200 batters, becoming the eighth pitcher to record that many strikeouts before age 22.

In 1977, Eckersley no-hit the California Angels, 1-0, with 12 strikeouts and made his first All-Star appearance. But the Indians were going nowhere. Eckersley was thrust into pennant contention the following year when he was traded to Boston. That same day, March 30, Eckersley's first wife, Denise, told him she wanted a divorce; she had become romantically involved with Eckersley's Cleveland teammate Rick Manning. The two later married.

Eckersley went 20-8 with a 2.99 ERA for the 1978 Red Sox, who lost the AL East to the Yankees in a one-game playoff. He did his part to keep Boston close, winning his last four starts with complete games.

In 1979, he was 17-10 with a 2.99 ERA. The following year he began a downward slide in which he went 47-52 over four-plus seasons. Boston had seen enough, finally trading him to the Cubs in May 1984 in a deal for Bill Buckner. With a 10-8 record and 3.03 ERA, Eck helped the Cubs win the NL East. But he struggled in the NLCS against San Diego, allowing five earned runs in 5 1/3 innings in a Game 3 loss. The Padres also won the next two games and the pennant.

In 1985, Eckersley was 11-7 with a 3.08 ERA. He went to the disabled list for the first time, with a sore right shoulder. His final season with the Cubs was a clunker (6-11, 4.57 ERA).

After getting drunk at his sister-in-law's house in front of his daughter Mandy around Christmas 1986, Eckersley entered alcohol rehab in January, attending a 30-day treatment center in Newport, R.I. He returned to the Cubs for spring training, but was traded with a minor league pitcher to the Athletics on April 3 for three minor leaguers.

Oakland manager Tony La Russa initially used Eckersley as a middle/long reliever, but that role changed when closer Jay Howell was injured midway through the season. Eckersley became the closer and finished with 16 saves. In 115 2/3 innings, he struck out 113 and walked 17.

"If Jay Howell had stayed healthy, Eck may never have ended up in short relief," said their pitching coach, Dave Duncan.

Eckersley became the AL's top closer in 1988, when he saved a league-leading 45 games and helped the Athletics reach the World Series. Eckersley finished second to Minesota's Frank Viola in Cy Young Award voting.

But the enduring Eckersley image from that season was his delivery to the Dodgers' Gibson in Game 1 of the World Series. The hurting Gibson could barely walk, but drilled an Eckersley slider into the rightfield seats at Dodger Stadium for a game-winning homer. Eckersley's walk to Mike Davis a batter earlier was the first sign something was amiss. Gibson's homer propelled the underdog Dodgers to winning the Series in five games.

In July 1989, Eckersley testified on behalf of his brother Glen, who stood trial for kidnapping and attempted murder after he and an accomplice choked a 60-year-old woman on a Colorado interstate. Glen blamed the incident on involuntary intoxication. Dennis testified as a character witness, acknowledging that he and his brother began abusing alcohol as teenagers. Glen was found guilty and is serving a 40-year sentence.

Any emotional trauma Eckersley might have suffered didn't surface on the job - he finished with a 1.56 ERA, with 55 strikeouts and three walks in 57 2/3 innings after missing a quarter of the season with a strained right shoulder. The Athletics swept the Giants in a World Series interrupted by an earthquake.

In 1990, Eckersley had an 0.61 ERA and 48 saves as he struck out 73 and walked just four batters in 73 1/3 innings. Oakland won another pennant before losing to the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series.

Eckersley saved 43 games the next year and then in 1992 had his awards-winning season. But that campaign ended in disappointment. After the Athletics won the AL West, they lost to the Blue Jays in the ALCS. Oakland was one out from tying the series at two games when Eckersley surrendered a tying homer to Roberto Alomar in Game 4, a blast he considered more crushing than the Gibson homer four years earlier. Toronto won the game and the series.

Over his next three years, Eckersley saved 84 games. Before the 1996 season, he was traded to the Cardinals, where he was reunited with manager La Russa. In two seasons with St. Louis, Eckersley saved 66 games. A free agent, he signed with the Red Sox before the 1998 season. He went 4-1 with one save before retiring.

Since then, Eckersley has done studio work for ESPN and for New England Sports Network, commentating on Red Sox games.