"The best pitcher in all of baseball right now." —Jeff Montgomery, Kansas City Royal closer
"A sure Hall of Famer." —John Wathan, California Angel interim manager
"The king." —Sparky Anderson, Detroit Tiger manager
"The ace of all aces." —Doug Rader, Oakland A's coach
Paint the black. It's also a metaphor for what the Eck has done off the field. He has mowed down a murderers' row of misfortune: a much-talked-about divorce, arm ailments, alcoholism, stick-a-fork-in-him scouting reports, the incarceration of his older brother and, last but not least. that home run by Kirk Gibson, which, in Eck terminology, was the mother of all walk-off pieces.
Eckersley painted all the black corners of his life, and he has lived not only to tell about it but also to tell about it willingly, openly and graciously. There's no artifice to his pitching—well, maybe there's a little—and there's no artifice to the man. "There's no bull——to him," says George Brett of the Royals.
Few players in baseball are more universally liked or respected by their peers than Eckersley. "I always root for him," says Red Sox coach Don Zimmer, who managed the young Eck in Boston. "I still check the box scores for his name. Of all the people I've managed in this game he's one kid I'll remember, because he always approached this game like it was supposed to be approached. He had fun, he was competitive, and he loved it."
In fact, you could have an ongoing debate in the Oakland clubhouse on the question of whether Eckersley is a better pitcher or person. Says Jim Corsi, an A's reliever from Newton, Mass., "I worshiped the Eck when he pitched for the Sox, and now that I'm in the same bullpen with him, I marvel at what he does on the mound. Hey, the greatest compliment ever paid to me was when I was saving games for Tacoma earlier this year and they started calling me Eck-Corsi. But knowing Dennis as I do—we work out together in the off-season and dress next to each other—I almost think he's a better person than he is a pitcher."
"Dennis Eckersley is a great guy," says Sandy Alderson, the A's general manager. "But if you ask me, I'd say he's more impressive as a pitcher. The only time he gets in trouble is when Doug Harvey is calling balls and strikes." Alderson is talking about last month's All-Star Game, when, with Harvey—the umpire they call God—behind the plate, Eckersley gave up two runs in the ninth; Alderson is also talking about Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, in which Gibson hit that homer in the ninth with Harvey standing behind the catcher. "I think Dennis was squeezed [by Harvey in the All-Star Game]," says Alderson. "I should go back and look at Game 1 of the '88 Series."
Thanks to the magic of videotape, he can do that. But that tape, which may be the most oft-played in baseball history, feeds the memories of fans, who are constantly reminding Eckersley of the homer—"dropping a Gibson on me," he calls it. Yet for all the pain that tape has caused him, Eckersley holds nothing against videotape technology. It was, after all, a videocassette that changed his life.