By Brian Murphy
Special to Page 2

I didn't just hate Dennis Eckersley.

I hated him.

Dennis Eckersley
Dennis Eckersley was a dominant closer as a member of the Oakland A's.

Hated the mullet. Hated the old Tampa Bay Buccaneer helmet/one-eye-shut thing. Hated the fist pump. Hated the attitude. Hated how great he was.

I had to. I'm a Giants fan. Not only did Eck represent the A's long history of postseason successes (compared to the Giants), but he actually covered first base on the final play of the 1989 World Series. His glove was the final resting place of the Giants' '89 dream, and he celebrated the dream's mortality with those whirling, roundhouse fist pumps.

The kind I hated.

So why in the name of porn mustaches was I tearing up during Eck's Hall of Fame acceptance speech Sunday like it was the final scene in "Field of Dreams?"

Call it a little bit of growing up. And a lot of Eck.

The change began around 1994, or 1995. I can't remember. All I know is, I was a cub scribe for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat on pinch-hit duty covering an A's game. I was lost. Clueless. Turns out the game I saw was a good one. The A's, behind starter Steve Ontiveros, had a 1-0 lead through eight. Eck came in for the ninth. Coughed up two runs. A's lost, 2-1.

I wandered into the sepulchral post-game clubhouse. Stone silence, altered only by the sequential sounds of players gobbling the spread, then breaking wind. For some reason, I found myself wandering over near Eck's locker. He was in a folding chair, burning a cigarette like he was on death row. He saw me loitering.

"You need me?" Eck said, with apparent earnestness.

I nearly wet myself. Big-league ballplayers, at the time, were still off-limits in my mind. They were gods. They played ball.

"Come on," Eck said, motioning me over. "Come over here. Let's talk."

I stood in front of the greatest closer of all-time, and slowly opened my notebook.

"Can you believe that s---?" Eck said, with his characteristically floral verbiage. "'Onto' goes out there, shoves it up their a-- for eight innings. Then I come and f--- the whole thing up."

I'm scribbling, thinking: Can I get 'a--' into the paper?

"I let him down," Eck said. "He pitched great, and I let him down."

My feelings at the time weren't much different from the feelings I have now -- that it's nice to hear someone bleed for his craft, that it's nice to hear someone care so much, even if it's just a lousy old ballgame.

I left the Oakland Coliseum that night feeling differently about Eck.

For the next 10 years, that feeling morphed into full-fledged appreciation, and then into tear-duct overload during Eck's heartfelt Hall acceptance speech.

By 1999-2000, I was covering the A's full-time for the old S.F. Examiner, and I had a few occasions to run into Eck. He'd come to see his old squad in Boston, or New York. He'd walk in, all tanned and charismatic, mullet blowing softly in the breeze of the clubhouse air-conditioning ducts. He looked like a million bucks. He'd give anybody the time of day, if not offer the watch off his wrist. He was fresh. He was honest. He was eminently likable.

Dennis Eckersley
Eckersley looked very happy at his Hall of Fame induction.

Years later, and on Sunday as I watched him pay tribute to the game of baseball, I wondered just why Eck had come so far in my own mind.

It wasn't because he was accommodating to reporters. What a lousy, selfish reason to give a guy a stamp of approval: He's a great quote; ergo, he's a great guy.

No, it was something else. It was the depth of his passion for the game. It was that he understood how damn lucky he was to play ball for a living. It was that he cherished the opportunity, comprehended all of the glory and pain (however short-lived), and embraced it with a giant, spiritual bear-hug.

Turns out when he gave that roundhouse fist-pump, he wasn't showing up the other guys. I used to think that, for a long time. Hated him for it, too. Instead, through the prism of time, I see Eck giving a roundhouse fist-pump that said: Dammit, I play ball for a living. And I love every second of it. Every second of it.

In the end, Eck was real. And real goes a long way.

Way to go, Eck. Congratulations.

And thanks for the life lesson.

On, then, to the Weekend List of Five:

1. Lance
What do you get the guy who has everything? I mean, besides a Sheryl Crow "Live" DVD and a lock of Robin Williams' back hair.

What a mixed bag for Armstrong: The joy of victory, offset by the agony of smelling Mork from Ork's neck sweat in a celebratory hug.

Amazing that the sport of cycling is where Armstrong has made his legend. Most of us associate cycling with our pre-puberty era, when we jammed baseball cards in our spokes. Armstrong might have made the best newspaper delivery kid of all time.

Austin Man: "Honey, we already have tomorrow's paper delivered, today."

Austin Woman: "That's little Lance. He's always moving ahead on that bike of his."

Austin Man: "All that time on a banana seat? I just hope he doesn't turn out to sing soprano in the church choir."

Six wins in a row in the Tour de France? Wow. Not even the German Army had that much success in Gaul. They only wore the yellow jersey from 1940-44.

What is perhaps most compelling about Armstrong's accomplishment is that 99 percent of America applauds his genius, while comprehending zero percent of the whole "Cycling Team" thing. What happens in cycling? What is the U.S. Postal Service Team? How do they "chase down" other cyclists? I don't get it!

I do know, however, that if most every human being trained as much as Lance Armstrong does, and dedicated as much energy to cycling the Alps as Lance Armstrong does ... we'd all still finish about two days behind Lance in a Tour de France showdown.

2. Oh, Ricky
Question: How does Ricky Williams' sudden retirement rank with Jim Brown's sudden retirement?

Answer: Jim Brown -- 106 rushing TDs and 12,312 yards. Ricky Williams -- 41 rushing TDs, 6,354 yards and one wedding dress photo.

Ricky Williams
We'll never forget you Ricky, or your wedding dress.

You think Jim Brown would ever be caught dead in a wedding dress? He'd beat the hell out of the photographer who dared suggest the shoot. He's make Sean Penn's paparazzi-beatings look like Stuart Smalley on Zoloft.

My favorite moment of Ricky's sudden retirement was a quick sound bite I heard on "SportsCenter," just as they went to commercial: "Coming up: How much did marijuana have to do with Ricky Williams' retirement?"

This amuses me to no end, as all marijuana-related humor does. There is nothing funnier than weed culture. The lingo, including all the synonyms for getting high ("wake and bake," "posting up," etc.), all the synonyms for the actual product ("ganj," "sticky icky," etc.), and my all-time favorite unit of measurement, the "dime bag."

To think that Ricky Williams might have used some or all of these phrases in his phone call to Dave Wannstedt is hilarious, although I'm sure Dolphins fans won't join in my cackling.

Ricky to Wannstedt: "Coach, I just need to be at one with some herb. I'm off to Bangkok, in search of a hemp helmet."

A buddy of mine wrote me recently, saying he was taking his family to Northern California for vacation.

"I've already told my little daughters," he wrote in an e-mail, "about the special plants they grow in Humboldt County, and about the puppies who guard those magic plants so nobody can mess with them."

Beautiful. I'll look for Ricky Williams to turn up in a coffee shop in Eureka, Calif. sometime soon.

3. A Word on Lon
Few of you outside of the Bay Area understand the importance of broadcaster Lon Simmons being inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame, but let me assure you of something. To you Detroit fans -- Lon was better than Ernie Harwell. To you Philly fans -- Lon was better than Harry Calas. To you Chicago fans -- Lon was better than Harry Caray. (Granted, a low bar. But roll with me on this one.)

And, yes. I'll say the unsayable: To you Dodger fans -- Lon was better than Vin Scully.

That's right. Better than Vin Scully.

I don't say that lightly. I lived in L.A. from 1985-1992. I know Vin. I heard Vin. At times, Vin can be good. But I think Dodger fans confuse longevity and overstatement with other qualities. I'm not saying Scully isn't a worthy Hall of Famer. He is. I'm just saying that one of the true, true pleasures of growing up a Giants fan was the basso profundo of Lon Simmons, the wry understatement of Lon Simmons, the "Tell It Goodbye!" call of Lon Simmons -- so definitive that The Eck quoted it in his acceptance speech on Sunday.

I can say it no plainer than this: Lon Simmons was a man unafraid to let dead air tell a story. That single quality, combined with a rakish wit, a keen eye and an understanding that it was, in the end, all a game, made him the best.

Lon didn't feel the need to fill every second of airtime with conversation. He understood that a baseball game on the radio is a long and languid thing, and that sometimes things aren't happening on the ball field so he might as well be quiet in between pitches. One of the great trademarks of a Lon Simmons broadcast was to hear, every so often, the plaintive wail of a peanut vendor working the aisles. Lon let that cry be heard, because he let the sounds of the day tell the story. He didn't need to be the story. The game was the story. Lon just let it happen.

And he let it happen better than anybody.

4. Athens-Sparta: Again
The Red Sox and Yanks did it again this weekend, providing angst, adrenaline and bloody ears. There are few sweeter sounds in the summertime than the music-to-your-ear words: "The Yankees and Red Sox had a bench-clearing brawl on Saturday at Fenway."

That the BoSox came back to win that game with a three-run rally against Mariano Rivera is one for the ages ... until you realize that the Sox are a million games out and have as much of a chance to catch the Yankees -- who will soon clear space for The Big Unit, undoubtedly -- as the Yankees had to catch the Sox in '78.

Jason Varitek & Alex Rodriguez
Nothing like a Yankees-Red Sox brawl to get the adrenaline pumping.

Uh, never mind.

Anyway, I fear the Bostonians are too obsessed with the Gothamites. Their real foe is the Oakland A's, with whom they're battling for the wild card spot. But to Red Sox Nation, the Yankees are the fixation. The Red Sox are like Captain Queeg in "The Caine Mutiny," and the Yankees are the missing strawberries. Sox fans walk around, rolling steel balls in their hand like Bogart, while the shipmates -- also known as the other AL teams vying for a wild-card -- gather for a mutiny.

Note to Sox fans: Queeg never found out what was up with the strawberries. So don't worry about the Yanks. Just beat 'em when you can, then focus on the short-term goals, baby.

Besides, Jason Varitek can kick Alex Rodriguez's a-- any day. So, no worries.

5. Don't Forget Molitor!
The Cooler would be remiss if we didn't give a tip o' the Brewers/Twins/Blue Jays cap to Paul Molitor, one of the great batsmen of our times. How about the fact that Molitor went in as a Brewer? I'm sure Bud Selig, on the premises, charged Molitor for the bronze inlay of the Brewers logo on his Hall of Fame plaque.

Selig to Molitor, on podium: "Congratulations. And there's an invoice for $225 for using the Brewers' logo outside of Milwaukee city limits."

The true measure of Molitor's manhood came when he teared up during Eckersley's acceptance speech. He said he could relate, and was touched. I just imagine he was thinking: Damn! Wish I'd partied with this guy when he was drinking!

Brian Murphy of the San Francisco Chronicle writes every Monday for Page 2.




Brian
Murphy
WATER COOLER