The Day Dennis Eckersley Came Home to Oakland: `It Was Meant to Be'

John Hickey

The longest hour of Dennis Eckersley’s life took place on this day 33 years ago.

Eckersley was pitching for the Cubs in the spring of 1987, coming off one the worst years of his career. The Cubs trained at HoHoKam Stadium back then, and as he was preparing to leave for the day, Cubs’ general manager Dallas Green came by.

“Dallas came up to me and said, `I want you to be ready. We’re going to trade you,’” Eckersley said from Boston Friday. “I wasn’t ready. Not for that. I swear, that was eternity. I thought about all the teams I could go to. My mind was racing all over the place. And then he came back and said `Oakland.’”

“When he said `Oakland,’ it was like beautiful. I didn’t know what the A’s situation was. But it was a godsend. I was going home.”

Eckersley, born in Oakland and raised in Fremont where he starred at Washington High, was back in his comfort zone. And it was in part thanks to two sluggers. The Cubs had just signed Andre Dawson as a free agent, and they could use a little salary relief, leading Chicago management to consider cutting him loose. And the A’s Jose Canseco had homered and doubled off the top of the wall against Eckersley in a Cactus League game about 10 days before the trade, meaning Eckersley’s value on the open market was low.

Dawson would win the National League MVP in 1987. Canseco would win the AL MVP in 1988.

“Canseco totally owned me in that game, just wore me out,” Eckersley said. “After his double, I’m down 6-0 just trying to get my innings in. Then he steals third base. I look at him as say, `What the (expletive) are you trying to do?’ And he points to Tony (manager Tony La Russa) in the dugout. I look at Tony, and he’s saying yeah, it was him.”

La Russa and Eckersley traded expletives. Two weeks later, they were wearing the same uniform.

“I didn’t know him, not really,” Eckersley said. “And Tony didn’t know me at all.”

Specifically, they didn’t know that Eckersley was less than 90 days sober after having checked himself to an alcohol rehab clinic in Newport, R.I.

“Tony didn’t know where I was in my life, and I didn’t tell him about that,” Eckersley said. “At the time I don’t think he was crazy about the trade. He was wondering if I still had the fire in my belly. He asked me about that when we first talked.

“Fire? He had no idea. He didn’t realize I had something to prove. I had more fire than ever. No one knew. Hell, I didn’t know what was going to happen. You can’t blame the Cubs. And you have to give the A’s some credit, taking a flier on me.”

A career starter, Eckersley made just two starts in 1987. After Jay Howell came down with a sore arm, Eckersley was eased into occasional work as the Oakland closer. He had 16 saves, 13 of them from July 4 on. A year later, he was the best closer in the game, saving 45 games for a 104-win team. He’d go on to save 320 games in nine years spent in Oakland, ultimately winding up in Cooperstown with 390 career saves.

The A’s would go to the postseason four times in five years 1988-92 after finishing four games behind the Twins in 1987.

“After 1987, Sandy (general manager Sandy Alderson) knew what we needed, and he went out and got it. It was a great core group, and he brought in Dave Parker, Don Baylor, Ron Hassey and especially Welchie (Bob Welch). For all of us, it was the right spot at the right time.”

Eckersley, who would finish up his career in Boston in 1998 – he’d pitched there as a starter from 1978-84 – splits his time between the East and West coasts now. His daughter and grandkids are in the Bay Area, and his job as a part-time broadcaster for the Red Sox is 3000 miles away. And he spends time in Florida, too.

Right now, he’s in quarantine in Boston, hoping that baseball will come back soon, but unsure that it will.

For the first time in his life, he’s growing a beard. Because, why not?

“When I look back at the day I got traded to Oakland, when I look at life, it’s like it was meant to be,” he said. “I was just out of rehab, so it was a tough recovery, but I got sober. And that’s the reason I’m here now.”