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One Eck Of a Guy

Dec. 12, 1988
Dec. 12, 1988

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Dec. 12, 1988

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Point After

One Eck Of a Guy

With an assist from his wife, ace reliever Dennis Eckersley faced his drinking problem

At precisely 10 a.m. on Nov. 9, just 20 days after his team, the Oakland A's, lost the 1988 World Series, Dennis Lee Eckersley banged open the door and strode into the health and fitness facility at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester. Baseball glove in hand, coal-black hair flowing, face aglow with determination, the man known as the Eck, the American League's best relief pitcher, snapped to a physical therapist, "I've had enough time off. Put me to work."

This is an article from the Dec. 12, 1988 issue Original Layout

Eckersley plunked himself down on a stool, grabbed a metal bar extending from a Cybex machine and began a series of vigorous exercises that measure muscular strength in his right shoulder. Ten minutes later the therapist, Rich Zawacki, who works with the Boston Red Sox during the season, reported to the Eck what the Cybex graphs showed: "Your shoulder is a little weak—for you. But it's stronger than any other pitcher's I've seen, including guys who have had an entire winter to rest and work out."

Eckersley laughed and said, "How can a guy win that Rolaids reliever award and not be tired at the end of the season?" Whereupon he took his glove into a nearby room, which will serve as his bullpen this winter, and began his 15 minutes of pitching to Zawacki. After that he played 18 holes of golf and an hour of one-on-one basketball with an old pal and former Red Sox teammate, pitcher Bruce Hurst, before heading for an hour-long aerobics class at 5:30.

As he is the first to admit, Eckersley, 34, has come to be "obsessed" with physical fitness. That obsession paid off in a big way in 1988. He had a major league-leading 45 saves during the regular season—which earned him second place in the Cy Young Award balloting—and also saved all four victories in Oakland's sweep of Boston in the American League Championship Series.

But Eckersley's pitching feats haven't always been so impressive, nor has he always been such a paragon of physical fitness. Indeed, during his early years in the majors he was troubled by quite another kind of obsession—alcohol. Not until January 1987, when he entered Edgehill Newport, a treatment Center in Newport, R.I., to confront what he calls "my disease," did the Eck come to grips with his addiction. Later this month his older brother, Wally, will go on trial in Colorado Springs on numerous charges, including kidnapping, sexual assault and attempted murder of a 59-year-old woman. Dennis plans to take the stand to testify as a character witness on his brother's behalf, and knows he may have to tell a story that he kept hidden from the world for years.

"I'm prepared to explain that I am an alcoholic," he says. "That's my life story. I've been carrying this thing inside me for so long, I'm actually happy it's coming out. I'd like to help other people who have this disease, but I'm still in the early stages of sobriety, and until now. I haven't been ready. I'm lucky my whole life didn't get torn apart. I could have lost my wife, my career, everything. Instead, I finally started growing up."

Major league pitching—and major league drinking—began for Eckersley when he joined the Cleveland Indians in 1975. Back then, Scotch 'n' Sirloin wasn't just a restaurant; it was the diet of choice for big leaguers. "I was in the big leagues when I was 20," recalls Eckersley. "That's the age of a college junior. How do college juniors act? How can you grow up while playing big league baseball? Well, I didn't. I don't blame baseball for my drinking, because I was an alcoholic. But the baseball life made it worse. How does the saying go? Drink to celebrate, drink to drown your sorrows. That was me—to the max."

Drinking or not, the Eck showed from the start that he could also pitch to the max. In '75 he shut out the world-champion A's in his first major league start and set a rookie record by not allowing a run until his 29th big league inning. He went 13-7, with a 2.60 ERA, and was named the American League's rookie pitcher of the year. He proved his performance was no fluke the next season by striking out 200 batters in 199 innings. Then, against the California Angels in 1977, he threw a no-hitter, which was the centerpiece of a hitless streak that spanned 22‚Öì innings. The only player ever to pitch more consecutive innings without relinquishing a hit was Cy Young himself, whose streak reached 25‚Öì in 1904.

In 1978, at the ripe age of 23, the Eck was traded by the Indians to the Red Sox for four players. He responded with a dazzling 20-8 record and a 2.99 ERA. The next season he was leading the league in wins with a 16-5 record in August, but working on three days' rest wore him out. For the first time, pitching began to hurt. "I had never had to think about throwing strikes," he says, "but all of a sudden, something didn't seem right." He lost five of his last six decisions to finish 17-10.

Back then, the Eck was a wild-haired stylist whose delivery was so rhythmic that he sometimes appeared to dance on the mound. "God, did opposing players hate me," he says. "But I didn't mind them hooting on me. They didn't bother me. I was emotional, and I was cocky, but I also was real. That was no act."

Maybe not, but it was certainly entertaining. Complementing his cocksure attitude on the mound was DialEckt, the weird dialect that spread through baseball via the Eck and friends. Early in his career in Cleveland, Eckersley fell under the influence of veteran righthander Pat Dobson, who was given to verbal eccentricities. Together they came up with a new brand of chatter. For example, liquor was "oil," money was "iron," a big game was a "Bogart." As for baseball terms, DialEckt included some that have since entered the everyday lexicon of ballplayers: "cheese" (fastball), "yakker" (curveball), "kitchen" (inside pitch) and "kudo" (the bow a batter takes when he bails out). All of this led to Eck's pithy pronouncement on his craft: "Pitching is simple—cheese for the kitchen and a yakker for the kudo."

When he failed to complete negotiations on a five-year contract before pitching the Red Sox's '79 opener, Eckersley explained his disappointment to the Boston media this way: "I wore a three-piece, and they chilled me. I wanted the Bogart, but not without the iron out front."

Despite his flamboyance, Eckersley was going through a searing experience in his personal life. On March 30, 1978, Eck found out that he had been traded to Boston. The same day his first wife, Denise, told him that she didn't love him anymore. In June, he learned that she and his best friend. Rick Manning, a Cleveland outfielder, were having an affair (they would eventually be married).

"I was hurt at first," says Eckersley, "but Denise and I were kids when we got married. We were 18 and didn't know anything. What hurt was being separated from Mandee [his daughter]."

The divorce was not yet final in September '78, when Eckersley and Mandee, who was two at the time, were reunited for the first time in months at a Baltimore hotel. Watching the two of them, Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk said to a reporter, "Look at Eck's face. There's a 23-year-old kid holding all his real emotions inside him." The next day Eckersley started against the Orioles but pitched badly and was removed.

"I headed for the clubhouse, all teed off," recalls Eckersley, "and there at the end of the hallway was my daughter. It was just like The Babe Ruth Story. I broke down."

Somehow Eckersley maintained a civil opinion of the man who stole his wife. Says Hurst, "Every time Manning came to the plate against us, I used to fume and think, I hate that man. But Eck never did hate him. He still considered him a friend. I don't know how he did that."

The close friendship between Hurst and Eckersley has long struck outsiders as peculiar. Hurst is a quiet, rather shy Mormon from St. George, Utah, who angrily stormed off the Red Sox' charter in Oakland during this year's playoffs because he felt too much drinking would make the trip back to Boston intolerable. Yet the formerly hard-drinking Eckersley was Hurst's idol.

"I wanted to have Eck's style on the mound," he says. "My first day of spring training, I called home to tell everyone I'd played catch with Dennis Eckersley. The other day I found my '81 baseball card, and I saw that I had grown a mustache to look like the Eck. Once I got to know him, I realized how complex and decent he is. He was always there to help me through some very rough times. He understood adversity and knew how to deal with it. When he was traded by the Red Sox to the Cubs [in May 1984], I actually sat down and cried."

Eckersley's grace under fire shows up in many ways. It came as no surprise to Hurst that Eckersley patiently answered questions for nearly 45 minutes after having given up a dramatic homer to Kirk Gibson in the first game of this year's World Series. Hurst had heard about the class Eck had shown after pitching the third game of the '78 Boston Massacre—that infamous four-game sweep of the Red Sox by the New York Yankees in September. The score was 0-0 in the fourth inning when a two-out, bases-loaded pop-up fell amid five Red Sox fielders. By the time the inning was over, New York had scored seven runs.

After the game, Boston second baseman Frank Duffy was surrounded by 50 reporters, all demanding to know why he hadn't caught the pop-up. Eckersley came out of the trainer's room, saw the scene, rushed over and began pulling writers away from Duffy. "He didn't load the bases, I did," hollered Eckersley. "He didn't hang the 0-2 slider to Bucky Dent. The loss goes next to my name. Ask me about losing, not him."

Losing hadn't been much of a problem for Eckersley until his arm grew weary in August '79. After that, only his inconsistency was predictable. He had a bad back in '80 and was 12-14. He returned to good form in '82—good enough to start the All-Star Game—but tailed off and finished the season 13-13. Then in '83, Eck went 9-13, with a 5.61 ERA. "I hit bottom professionally," he says. "Taco [Mike Torrez] and I wore it out, partying hard. I never pitched with a hangover, and I gave it everything I had out there. But I had no arm speed. It was humiliating. Now that I look back on it, I believe that being——that year made me what I am today. I'm not proud of being——, but I'm proud that I faced the music. I never stopped pumping my arm on the mound. I realize that most opposing players think I've been a jerk on the mound my entire career. But I've never backed off. I ate a lot of crow that year, but if you can't eat crow, you can't survive."

As Eckersley suffered through 1983, his doctor convinced him that he had to rebuild the strength in his shoulder. In November, the Eck took his first stab at Cybex machines and serious workouts. The results were quick and positive. "By February, I was a different pitcher," he says. Nevertheless, Boston traded Eckersley to the Cubs for Bill Buckner. He finished the '84 season with 14 wins and helped pitch Chicago into the playoffs. In '85 he was 11-7 but missed several starts after developing tendinitis in his shoulder. The next year the wheels fell off again. The Eck was awash in booze.

"All the day games in Chicago helped do me in," he says. "I was drinking a lot, and by that time I knew I had a problem. I actually quit for a few months before the '85 season, but even though I knew I had a problem, I couldn't deal with it. I was losing all my self-esteem in self-destruction, yet I couldn't do anything about it."

In 1980, two years after the breakup of his first marriage, Eckersley married Nancy O'Neil, a model who had earned her master's in communications at Boston College. When Dennis joined the Cubs, Nancy was painfully aware of her husband's drinking, and during his first year in Chicago she began pressing him to seek help. "We were on the road to splitting up," says Nancy.

When the '86 season ended, Eckersley was at last ready to confront his problem with the bottle. On a cold day in January 1987, Nancy dropped him off at Edgehill. When she picked him up six weeks later, she was stunned at the transformation. "It was as if I'd picked up a little kid," she says.

"There was a lot of pain that produced a lot of tears," says the Eck. "I don't think I ever realized all the emotional baggage I'd carried around, but slowly it oozed out of me. When I got out, I had to feel my way around a little. I'd always been afraid of not drinking. I was afraid of life being dull. By spring training, I realized I really looked forward to living, where once I just tried to get by. I was so excited I wanted to tell the world I was sober, but I wasn't ready to take the heat."

When the Athletics acquired him from the Cubs in April 1987, they didn't know they were getting a new Eck. "We'd done the normal scouting, but all we were going on was what we saw and what he'd done in the past," says Oakland general manager Sandy Alderson.

"All I knew was that Dennis was a great competitor," says manager Tony La Russa. "We put him in the bullpen to see what would happen, and [pitching coach] Dave Duncan got the idea that he'd make a great reliever."

Eckersley got the chance to become Oakland's closer when Jay Howell, the A's pre-Eck short man, suffered shoulder problems in the second half of '87. Eck finished with 16 saves. "A year earlier, I don't think it would have worked," he says. "I couldn't have been an every-day pitcher when I was drinking. But at Oakland I changed jobs at precisely the right time, and I give the A's credit for that. They took the gamble on me by trading Howell last winter."

Says Duncan, "Eck always throws strikes [he has allowed only 23 unintentional walks in the past two years], and he has the heart of a giant. His natural response is to challenge a crisis head-on. That's what makes him such a great reliever. And it's not tough on his arm if he's used right. Think of it this way: Aren't you less likely to break down running two miles every day than 10 miles every fifth day?"

Eckersley is just as satisfied as his bosses. "La Russa and Duncan really understand how to use a bullpen," he says. "I hardly ever warmed up without going in. I only pitched on back-to-back days a half-dozen times. I rarely worked more than two innings. I almost always started an inning. But while Tony and Dave made me feel like a king, it didn't make things any easier. I was still a basket case. By the sixth inning of every game, I'd think, Why am I doing this? I've got to be crazy.

"At the All-Star Game, I sat down with Jeff Reardon [of the Twins]. He's been a great closer for years, and he always looks so cool out there. I'd always heard about Rollie Fingers and Sparky Lyle, who supposedly never got bothered by anything, but the first thing Reardon said was that he's a basket case, too. God, was I glad to hear that.

"I get fired by fear," continues the Eck. "I'm scared of failure every time I go out there. I can remember Carl Yastrzemski telling me that it never gets easier, that the game just got tougher and more nerve-racking every year. Boy, was he ever right. The 45th save was tougher than the first one."

Friends gave Eckersley videotapes of the four playoff games he saved this year, but he hasn't even taken a peek at them. "I'm not looking at anything until right before spring training," he says. "Then I'll watch the playoffs to send me off positively. That's what one pitch did to my season."

The pitch he's referring to, of course, is the 3-2 backdoor slider to Gibson with two out in the bottom of the ninth in that World Series game against the Dodgers in L.A. "When he hit it, I just sank," Eckersley says. "I guess I'm glad it wasn't a Ralph Branca job that ended the season, but it was bad enough. Usually when you give one up, teammates pat you on the behind and say, 'Go get 'em next time.' We were all so stunned, no one said a thing."

Nancy stayed up most of that night listening to Dennis talk. "I hardly slept the entire postseason, but that night I was really bad," he says.

"I was on eggshells the entire time," says Nancy.

"Was I that bad?" asks the Eck.

"I didn't get gastritis worrying about the California weather," she says.

In addition to pursuing modeling, Nancy has become serious about acting. She was Barbara Stock's regular stand-in on Spenser for Hire, and she had two other bit parts in the Boston-based TV show. She recently appeared in local productions of such diverse works as Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians and Molière's Tartuffe. The Eck helps her practice her lines. "I bet you never thought you'd catch me reading Molière, did you?" he says.

Another line of defense in dealing with his disease is fellow A's hurler Bob Welch, who has made his own alcoholism a matter of public record.

"Since he wrote his book [Five O'clock Comes Early], alcoholics have come out of the woodwork to seek him out," says Eckersley. "When we're with a bunch of ballplayers, he'll look around and say, 'He's one of us.' Bob's wired to everyone who is one of us, and you'd be surprised how many of us there are. Even so, I still like to go out with the guys, still like to talk trash. I just don't drink or stay out as late as I used to. I used to be so afraid that I was missing something. Now I sit at home in front of the fire with Nancy, and I know I'm not missing a thing.

"For the first time in my life I not only feel good," says the Eck, "I feel good about myself."

PHOTOBRAD TRENT/DOTNancy aided in the Eck's transformation from erratic starter to superb stopper.PHOTOBRAD TRENT/DOTEckersley's fitness routine calls for him to throw inside strikes three times a week.PHOTOBRAD TRENT/DOTCybex tests reveal that Eckersley's 45 saves did not damage his wing.PHOTOFOCUS ON SPORTSThe freewheeling Eck went 20-8 as a Sox starter in '78.PHOTOBRAD TRENT/DOTAn erstwhile party guy, Eckersley now relishes his tranquil off-season home life.