I started watching baseball in 1980, when I was 8 years old.
As Dennis Eckersley himself once said in an interview, “I fell in love with baseball when I was 8. Who doesn’t fall in love with baseball when they are 8?”
In that 1980 season, Eckersley was the ace of a faltering Red Sox team in which Carl Yastrzemski was aging and popular core players Fred Lynn and Carlton Fisk would be shown the door after the season as a result of contract disputes.
Though Eckersley didn’t have one of his best seasons (12-14, 4.28 ERA), my 8-year-old self immediately took to him. From his high leg kick to his long hair to his moustache and his three-quarters arm release, he was captivating to watch. Eckersley also threw strikes (too many, at times) and worked fast. What was there not to like?
Little did I know he would remain a significant part of my baseball experience for the better part of the next four decades.
Therefore, I’m not shy about saying I felt a tinge of sadness earlier this week, when Eck announced he was retiring from the NESN broadcast booth at the end of this season and moving back to his native California to throw himself into being a grandparent.
Drafted in 1972 by Cleveland, Eckersley spent the last half-century in the game in one fashion or another. He is ready for the next chapter of his life, when baseball becomes the background music rather than the focal point.
Eckersley’s first chapter in Boston, as a player, ended on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend in 1984. With things clearly amiss in his personal life -- Eckersley later admitted he was an alcoholic -- and his performance slipping, the erstwhile ace was traded to the Cubs for Bill Buckner.
Forget about the infamous ground ball at Shea Stadium two years later. That was a great move for the Red Sox, who added a veteran grinder and hit machine in Buckner. It was also a great move for Eckersley, who spent two and a half seasons basking in Wrigley fun and then cleaned up his life and turned into an elite pitcher in Oakland, where Tony La Russa had the foresight to turn the former 20-game winner into a closer.
Bostonians rooted for Eck from afar as he turned into a Hall of Fame closer, perhaps begrudgingly so when he stifled the Red Sox and led his Athletics to ALCS sweeps in 1988 and ’90. They empathized with him when he gave up that legendary home run to a hobbled pinch-hitter named Kirk Gibson in ’88.
Eckersley came back to Boston for one last hurrah in 1998, pitching the final 50 games of his career as a setup reliever. Wearing a Red Sox jersey top, Eckersley cried during his retirement press conference and that was the last we saw of him for a while.
But the real gift came in 2003, when NESN put him on the air to analyze all things Red Sox. For the first few years, it was as a studio guy, and Eck was very candid. Players and managers watching from the clubhouse didn’t always enjoy such candor.
As Eck said, his job was to serve the fans. And that he did. Eckersley was always honest. He experienced the highest of highs in the game, but also the lowest of lows, and that gave him depth behind his words as a broadcaster.
Eck’s NESN work brought him into manager’s press conferences and into the press box, giving me the chance to get to know him over the last two decades. That has been a joy. You don’t often see Hall of Famers in any walk of life who are more genuinely nice, honest and easy to talk to than Eckersley. For this, I’m grateful.
As the years went by, Eckersley transitioned from the studio to the booth.
His in-game insights were hilarious in Eck speak. “Look at that three-run johnson! … Nice piece of cheese. … That was a yakker. … Wow, that’s some paint right there. … He threw gas there.”
He also got excited by the moment and was never afraid to show it. Remember that Mookie Betts at-bat on July 12, 2018, at Fenway against J.A. Happ that lasted 13 pitches and ended with a grand slam? It was an epic at-bat, enhanced by Eck’s analysis.
“This is historic,” Eckersley said late in the at-bat. “Yeah, let’s go, get after it,” Eck said as the crowd came to their feet with the count 2-2.
Then, the count got full. And Eck offered this gem:
“Here we go, it’s time to party right here.” On cue, Betts flicked his wrists and scorched one over the Monster.
As Dave O’Brien made his play-by-play call, Eck could be heard in the background joyfully yelling, “Yay!” As Betts circled the bases, Eck said, “I’m telling you, it’s time to party! The way the Red Sox are going, it was time to party again, I’m telling you.”
Who could disagree?
Speaking of parties, I recently bumped into Eckersley at the party the Red Sox held for David Ortiz in Cooperstown. At the time, I didn’t know Eckersley would be leaving the NESN booth at the end of the season.
But something came over me that made me want to thank him. I asked for a picture with the pitcher -- in which he stood between my wife, Amy, and me. I then thanked him for all his honesty though the years.
“Thanks,” Eckersley said. “I really appreciate you saying that.”
All of Red Sox Nation will undoubtedly appreciate listening to these final weeks of Eck on the air.