When he throws, Eckersley has his right eye closed, in the manner of a marksman. And then, before the other team knows it, the game is over. Mighty Mouse has saved the day.
There's an interesting tape that you won't find in your video store, although you can order it from the Center for Sports Conditioning in Boston. It's called A Doctor's Prescription for the Pitcher. The doctor is Arthur Pappas, the Red Sox medical director and something of an arm guru, and the pitcher is Dennis Eckersley. "I think Dr. Pappas's first choice was Clemens," says the Eck, "but Roger couldn't do it."
No offense to the Rocket, but the video wouldn't have been as effective with him in it. The first part of the tape, which is hosted by Boston sportscaster Bob Neumeier, deals with Eckersley's history, from his days pitching for the Washington High Huskies in Fremont, Calif., to the present. The Eck talks about the arm problems he had—his right shoulder in '83 and again in '85—but more important, he talks about his problems with alcohol. "If you pitch a good ball game, you wind up celebrating a win. Or if you don't, you wind up drowning your sorrows. So it's either one or the other, and the next thing you know, it's always there."
The second part of the tape is devoted to the workout, which Pappas recommends that pitchers do three times a week in season and five times a week in the off-season. It's a bear. There are 15 flexibility exercises, 11 shoulder exercises, five for the forearm and wrist, and three each for the trunk and the lower body. All this and aerobic conditioning too.
An impressive regimen, to be sure, but it is the Eckersley history that most intrigues, a history that bears repeating, if only as a reminder of how good a starting pitcher he once was. At 20, in May 1975, he made the Cleveland Indians after only three minor league seasons, and in his first game he shut out the A's 2-0. In fact, he did not allow an earned run in his first 28⅔ innings, which is still a major league rookie record. He won 13 games that year and was the American League Rookie Pitcher of the Year. In 1977 he had a string of 22⅓ hitless innings (second only to Cy Young's 25⅓, in 1904). The core of Eckersley's hitless streak was a May 30 no-hitter in which he beat the Angels 1-0, striking out 12. His catcher that night was Ray Fosse, who's now a broadcaster for the A's. "Every time I see him pitch nowadays, I'm reminded of that night," says Fosse. "His delivery now is pretty much what it was then. If people think he gets excited now, they should have seen him then. After striking out somebody, he'd yell, 'You're next!' at the on-deck batter. I remember the very last batter he faced that night, Gil Flores. He was stalling, and Dennis shouted, 'Get in there!' "
Before the 1978 season Eckersley was traded to the Red Sox, along with catcher Fred Kendall, for pitchers Rick Wise and Mike Paxton, third baseman Ted Cox and catcher Bo Diaz. The trade was a blessing, because Dennis was going through a divorce from his first wife, Denise. The split became somewhat notorious after Eckersley's best friend, Indian centerfielder Rick Manning, moved in with and subsequently married Denise. (Eckersley, who still has amicable relationships with both Rick and Denise, remains quite close to his daughter from that first marriage, Mandee, who is 16.)
The Eck became an instant folk hero in Boston, winning 20 games with a 2.99 ERA in that fated season—the year of the Bucky Dent debacle—and captivating the writers with his colorful language, which was really handed down to him by a former teammate on the Indians, Pat Dobson. In DialEckt, which is what Boston Globe writer Peter Gammons called it, "iron" was money, "salad" was a nothing pitch, a "Bogart" was a big game, "walk-off piece" was a game-winning homer and "oil" was booze.
Eckersley had another good season in '79, going 17-10, 2.99 and meeting Nancy O'Neil—a model and a communications major from Boston College—at Daisy Buchanan's, a popular Boston night spot where she was waitressing. She first took him home to her family in West Roxbury because he had long hair and she wanted to get a rise out of her father, Ed, who was then a Boston police captain; but Ed and Dennis soon became fast friends, and in 1980 Nancy and Dennis were married.
In the meantime, though, Eckersley's arm had begun to lire. The win totals fell and the ERA rose, and Red Sox fans fell out of love with him. "I used to have a car with THE ECK license plates," he says. "I got rid of them after I came out of a bar one night and the tires were slashed. In those days Nancy used to come to every game, and she had to listen to 'You suck, Eck' all the time. Now I'm stylin', and she hardly ever comes to the games."
The worse he pitched, the more he par-tied, until he became something of an oil-master. After the '83 season (9-13, 5.61 ERA), in which Eckersley was jokingly referred to as the American League's batting-practice pitcher, Pappas convinced him that he needed to strengthen his shoulder. But before the Red Sox had a chance to see the results, they traded him, along with infielder Mike Brumley, to the Cubs for Bill Buckner in May '84. In the second half of that season Eckersley went 8-3 to help the Cubs win the National League East.