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The Eck says goodbye
After 24 years in majors, relief ace Eckersley retires
Posted: Friday December 11, 1998 01:21 AM
BOSTON (AP) -- For more than two decades, Dennis Eckersley stood on the mound like a gunslinger, with his flowing hair, droopy mustache and one of the most talented arms in baseball.
After pitching in the most games in major league history -- 1,071 -- Eckersley said Thursday he had thrown his final fastball.
His 24 seasons in the majors were really two careers: 13 years as a starter and then, after a battle with alcohol, a move to the bullpen for 11 years as one of the most dominating relievers the game has ever seen.
"It's hard to walk away," he said, fighting back tears. "It's been a major part of my life since I was 8 years old."
The Eck piled up awards and memories: six All-Star appearances, the AL Most Valuable Player and Cy Young awards in 1992, the AL championship series MVP in 1988. He pitched a no-hitter for Cleveland in 1977, sat in the dugout for the 1978 Yankees-Red Sox playoff, gave up Kirk Gibson's famous World Series home run 1988, and closed out games for the three Bash Brothers pennant winners in Oakland.
"I guess the favorite memories are some of the magic that happened in Oakland," said Eckersley, who was born and raised in the Bay area. "We had some magic that lasted for about five years, those were some of the special times."
Now 44 and third on the career saves list with 390, he only admitted he had reached the end this week, after the Red Sox refused to offer salary arbitration, making them ineligible to re-sign him until May 1.
"To be honest with you, somebody had to make the decision for me because I wouldn't have done it," Eckersley said. "I would much rather have left like I've done today than to leave in the middle of the season or getting booed out of the ballpark. I didn't want to taint my career."
In his last appearance on September 26, Eckersley broke a tie with Hoyt Wilhelm by pitching in his 1,071st game. As the Red Sox reliever ran in from the bullpen -- a trademark of the Eck -- fans at Fenway Park gave him a standing ovation.
Eckersley, who regularly runs in the offseason to keep in shape, said the thought of retirement started creeping into his mind after the playoffs.
"People started saying that I could do it again, and I thought, 'Well, I guess,' but you know, physically, I did not want to keep it going," he said. "I just started gearing down. Usually I just keep running, but all of the sudden I didn't want to run anymore. That's what happens I guess, that's what happened to me."
The right-hander, who spent seven years with the Red Sox before moving on to the Chicago Cubs, Oakland Athletics and St. Louis Cardinals, had returned to the team last December intending to finish his career in Boston.
He was a 20-game winner with the Red Sox in 1978, the year of that famous playoff game against the Yankees.
"I told somebody that this [return] was like the coming out party for me in '78," said Eckersley, who resides in Sudbury. "You're lucky to be in the big leagues, let alone play where you live. I was lucky to come back here."
Eckersley broke into the major leagues in 1975 with the Cleveland Indians, and pitched for the Red Sox from 1978-84. He was 20-8 with a 2.99 ERA in '78, his best year as a starter, but his production diminished over the next six years.
After going 6-11 with the Cubs in 1986, Eckersley was traded to the Athletics, who turned him into a reliever and gave him a second career.
"I'd be crazy saying I thought I'd do this," Eckersley said. "Twelve years ago, my whole life changed when I went into the bullpen. I was just trying to make it to the big leagues, I know how fortunate I was. You never think you're going to have a 24-year career. Nobody's that cocky."
Eckersley's career rebounded after he quit drinking and joined an Alcoholics Anonymous program in January 1987. A year later, he had a major-league leading 45 saves.
From 1988-1993, he averaged 43 saves per season. In 1990, he had 48 saves and a 0.63 ERA for one of A's three consecutive pennant winners he played on.
One memory Eckersley may want to forget was when he gave up Gibson's homer to lose Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. It was a Series Eckersley and the A's wound up losing in five games.
Despite a mediocre year with the Red Sox -- he went 4-1 with one save and a 4.76 ERA in 50 relief appearances -- Boston fans continued to cheer, and often gave standing ovations to the right-hander.
"I had a good run," Eckersley said. "I had some magic that was with me for a long time, so I know that I was real lucky to not have my arm fall off for one thing, and to make it this long physically is tough enough. But to me, it's like you're being rescued too when your career's over. It's like, 'Whew,' the pressure's off."
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