When Eckersley first reported to the A's, La Russa took him aside, and they went for a little walk in the outfield. "Tony gave me this little talk he has about how a player has to keep that fire inside or he might as well quit," says Eckersley. "It was really a gut check, and I guess I nodded enough to pass."
La Russa also recalls the chat: "He passed, but he still had to pitch."
The A's were looking to work Eckersley in as a fifth starter, but in that role he was pretty much a bust, 0-2 with a 6.94 ERA. However, they also had some bullpen needs, and the Eck proved outstanding in long and middle relief—this despite the fact that he wasn't crazy about the idea of becoming a reliever. After all, he was a pitcher with 100 complete games to his credit. "But going through a dramatic life change made it a little easier for me to accept my new role," he says.
La Russa is quick to credit pitching coach Dave Duncan with turning the Eck into a reliever, but Duncan is just as quick to credit Eckersley. "I'm no genius," says Duncan. "Heck, if Jay Howell hadn't come up with a sore arm, we might not have discovered that Dennis was the game's greatest closer. Dennis did it, not me." Howell had been the last man out of the Oakland bullpen, but he went down with bone chips in his elbow shortly after the 1987 All-Star Game; Eckersley took over, and he saved 16 games that year. After the season he got a vote of further confidence when the A's traded Howell to the Dodgers.
Relief suited Eckersley perfectly. He always was a good control pitcher. Since he no longer had to pace himself, he could air out his arm a little more. And opposing teams couldn't stack their lineup with lefthanded hitters, as they had when he was a starter. In 1988 he had such a good year in relief that he finished second in the Cy Young balloting to Frank Viola of the Minnesota Twins; he had 45 saves during the regular season, plus one in the All-Star Game and four more in the American League Championship Series against his old team the Red Sox. Then came the Bogart.
It wasn't God's fault.
Despite Alderson's suspicion, the replay shows that Doug Harvey—God—didn't squeeze Eckersley that night in Dodger Stadium. With a 4-3 lead in the bottom of the ninth, the Eck got the first two Dodgers he faced, on a pop-up and a strikeout. Then weak-hitting Mike Davis came up as a pinch hitter; with the count 3-1, Eckersley threw ball four, a pitch nowhere near the paint.
And that brought Gibson to the plate. The Eck had him 0-2, and the next thing you know, it's 3-2, and Eckersley throws a backdoor slider, and the rest, as they say, is history. More than that, really. When NBC replayed the homer the next night, interspersed with footage of the climactic scene from The Natural, it became legend. "It got so I began thinking I gave up a home run to Robert Redford," says Eckersley.
For almost an hour after that game, the Eck answered question after question about Gibson's homer. In an era when players hide after inconsequential errors, he replayed the 3-2 backdoor slider for everybody.
Had he taken a drink that night, nobody would have been too surprised. But he didn't. "My recovery wouldn't have been worth very much if I had blown it on one game," he says. Instead he and Nancy stayed up all night, talking about the homer.