"Let's pull out the save against Toronto."
Oakland manager Tony La Russa is in the A's state-of-the-art video room, and he has just selected one of his favorite Eckersley tapes, save number 30, against the Blue Jays on July 11. "We have a 3-1 lead in the ninth, and Dennis has to face Roberto Alomar, Joe Carter—two All-Stars—and John Olerud, who is swinging the bat very well right now. In this one you'll see that he throws his fastball to all four zones, and he also has a great slider. Here's Alomar, who he pitches differently every time. [Alomar flies out to center on a 2-2 fastball.] Now watch what he does to Carter. [Carter grounds out to third on an 0-1 slider.] And now Olerud. [He goes down swinging, on three pitches: slider, fastball, fastball.] That was nice."
Asked how he would characterize the Eck as a pitcher. La Russa says, "Here it is in 25 words or less: Good stuff. Great command. And the best mental approach of any pitcher I have ever known. How's that?" Not bad—16 words. Eck-like.
When Eckersley comes running in from the bullpen, making his customary little skip three steps into his approach, he's really only bringing two pitches into the game: a fastball that sometimes touches 90 mph, and a hellacious slider. He also has a pretty good sinker, but he hardly ever throws that because, he says, "it's a ball." Several teams, most notably the Blue Jays in the 1989 American League Championship Series, have accused him of scuffing the ball. "I don't cheat," says the Eck. "But if I was handed a ball with a scratch on it, I would probably know what to do with it."
Still, plenty of relievers have better stuff. Some baseball people feel the key to Eckersley's success is his funky delivery. Says Blue Jay general manager Pat Gillick, "He's a difficult guy to pick up because he throws very close to his body. He sort of shoots it at you, like a pitching machine without an arm. All of a sudden the ball just appears. And whereas most pitchers let go of the ball with the hand on top, his hand is under the ball, so that most of his pitches ride up."
Of course, no other reliever in history has had Eckersley's control, or what Angel pitching coach Marcel Lachemann refers to as "extreme location." Dan Quisenberry, the acknowledged bullpen paintmaster before Eckersley came along, walked 1.40 batters every nine innings (compared with the Eck's 0.91 the past five years). Even the best control pitcher of this century, Cy Young, walked 1.11 hitters every nine innings, clearly making Eckersley the Cy of relief. (BBWAA voters, take note at Cy Young voting time.) Since becoming a stopper Eckersley has walked (unintentionally) two batters in an inning only once. And in that time just three baiters have drawn more than one walk off him: Kent Hrbek (three), Randy Milligan (two) and Robin Yount (two).
There's also a certain theatrical quality to an Eckersley performance that works in his favor. "With his mustache and long, flowing black hair, he reminds me of a buccaneer," says Alderson. "Or a thespian playing a buccaneer. I don't think any of it is put on. Dennis is genuinely excited out there, and it gets our fans very excited, and that helps him." Even on the road an Eckersley entrance raises the temperature of a ballpark, which makes the batters want to beat him even more. That, of course, makes them easier to beat.
Still, as La Russa has pointed out, Eckersley's secret is not so much external as it is internal. Says the Eck, "Basically I'm scared to death out there."
His good friend Scott Sanderson, the Yankee pitcher who played with Eckersley on the Cubs and the A's, says, "I've never come across anyone else who so openly can let you know everything going on inside. Dennis is pretty candid about his fear of failure, for instance. When he goes out there on the mound, he wants to hurry to get it over with so he can breathe a sigh of relief." Or as A's catcher Jamie Quirk says, "He's so afraid of failure that he's perfect."
It's a little hard to reconcile the image of Eckersley gunning down the last batter with the notion that he's just a frightened boy out there. But it's true. "Every time I go out there," he says, "the fear is running through my head. What if I fail? I let everybody down, the team, the fans, my family, myself. That's why I won't throw balls. I don't want to walk Mike Davis again, you know what I mean? [Sec Game 1, 1988 World Series.]