He should be known for more than HR he gave up
'I can live with it. I'm in the Hall of Fame. I'm cool.'
Even now, all this time after he threw the "hanging [bleeping] backdoor slider" to Kirk Gibson that became one of the most famous home runs in baseball history, Dennis Eckersley is too often remembered more for that one pitch than for being one of the greatest relievers who ever lived.
Start here: He's one of only three closers -- the Brewers' Rollie Fingers (1981) and the Tigers' Willie Hernandez ('84) -- to win the Cy Young Award and the MVP Award in the same season. And Eck did plenty more than that. He became one of the few pitchers to completely change their place in history, and really start pitching their way to Cooperstown, after the age of 30, doing that after Tony La Russa moved him to the bullpen in '87. Eckersley had 16 saves that season, but it was the next year that Eckersley began a six-year run of excellence that got him to the Hall of Fame.
The truth is that Eckersley should be remembered for three pitches -- "Fastball upstairs on the corner, two sliders, one that I'd take something off," as he says -- instead of the one he threw to Gibson in the bottom of the ninth inning at Dodger Stadium in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. The two of them are now frozen in that moment forever, the way Bobby Thomson and Ralph Branca will forever be. Iconic October home runs do that.
It's more than somewhat ironic, then, that Eckersley was born on Oct. 3, 1954, three years to the day after Thomson hit "The Shot Heard 'Round the World" at the Polo Grounds.
But Eckersley was talking about the moment before Gibson's home run the other day, when he walked former Oakland teammate Mike Davis, who hit .196 for the Dodgers that season after hitting 22 homers for the A's the year before, the same year Eckersley went to the bullpen for good in Oakland.
"Why I was tentative with [Davis] is beyond me," Eckersley said. "But it's almost like it was supposed to happen. I knew [Davis]. I respected him. I didn't believe that he was the .196 hitter who'd just had a [bad] year. I just gave him too much space. I did that sometimes with left-handed hitters. I didn't want to make a mistake with him and have him jack one out and tie the game. But you can't pitch like that. I never pitched like that."
"Then here comes Gibson out of the dugout," Eckersley continued. "And my first thought is, 'Oh [bleep].' Not because I was worried. I just knew that the next few minutes were gonna feel like a long time. I'm impatient. That never works in games like this. I know I'm probably going to have to throw over [to first] multiple [bleeping] times. Step on. Step off. [Gibson] will foul balls off. I'm a rhythm guy. Get it and go. Well, it went all right. May as well have been Game 7."
I stood by Eckersley's locker for a long time that night in the visitors' clubhouse at Dodger Stadium, watched him answer every question with patience and grace until the last one had been asked, even if it was pretty much the same question over and over: What was the pitch? It was a master class in how to handle defeat in sports.
Eckersley laughed on Saturday as we relived the scene, before shouting his answer over the phone one last time:
"It was a backdoor hanging [bleeping] slider! What did you think it was?"
"But that was my acceptance mode," he continued. "I'd gotten sober by then. If I was going to accept everything else in my life, I was going to accept this. You want to know something? How I handled it in the clubhouse that night was one of the proudest moments of my life."
Eckersley is 65 now, even if he doesn't look it or act it. For my money, he is as good and entertaining a baseball analyst as there is, working games on NESN with Dave O'Brien and Jerry Remy, and has worked for Turner Sports, and been an ambassador for the Hall of Fame and a special assistant with the A's. He remains one of the great and charming characters of the game. If you are lucky enough to be able to watch Red Sox games on television, you know just how good he is, and what a show.
And, of course, he and Gibson have become friends over the years.
"Close friends," Eckersley said. "There's that connection that we're always going to have. We're stuck together." He laughed again and said, "We might as well make the most of it."
At age 22, Eckersley threw a no-hitter on May 30, 1977, as a member of the Indians. The following season, he went 20-8 with the Red Sox and finished fourth in the American League Cy Young Award voting. As a starter, he won 149 games. In '90, he posted a 0.61 ERA in 63 games out of the bullpen. In his MVP year for the A's, at the age of 37, he had 51 saves and a WHIP of 0.913, walked 1.2 batters per nine innings, struck out 10.5 batters per nine innings and received 15 of 28 first-place votes for the MVP Award.
"I was efficient as hell," Eckersley said. "For that run I had, there was a kind of magic to it. I threw so many damn strikes. I gave up home runs, too. But I went after people."
Then came that one night in October 1988. Eckersley didn't go after Davis. Then Gibson hit his own "Shot Heard 'Round the World." I asked Eckersley if it bothers him, after everything else he did in baseball and all that he did, after all the magic he talked about, that it so often comes back to one hanging slider.
"I get it," he said. "I can live with it. I'm in the Hall of Fame. I'm cool."
Cool as ever.