WHAT THE ECK?
Dennis Eckersley hasn't changed much, even though his role has. As April ended, the Oakland Athletics' righthander led the majors in saves with nine. He had succeeded in every save opportunity this season and had not allowed a run. "I still don't really like this role," says Eckersley, a 12-year starter who was moved to the bullpen after the Athletics acquired him from the Chicago Cubs last year. "But I'll do whatever they ask me. Actually, I really can't believe I can do it." This is the same Eckersley who was one of the best and brashest of pitchers in the late '70s. Brash? En route to throwing a no-hitter for the Cleveland Indians in 1977, he got two strikes on a California Angels batter, pointed to Jerry Remy in the on-deck circle and shouted, "You're next." Eckersley was traded to the Boston Red Sox in 1978 and promptly won 20 games while introducing a new dialect to the clubhouse. To Eck, liquor was "oil" before Oil Can Boyd was out of high school. Money was "iron," and he referred to himself as "the Bridge Master." Giving up a homer was being "taken to the bridge," and he was a frequent provider of gopher balls.
In August 1979, Eckersley was 16-5 when his right shoulder started hurting. He struggled through the rest of the season, winning just one game and losing five. "If I knew then what I know now about conditioning and taking care of yourself, I'd have been back faster," says Eckersley. As he got older and married for a second time (his wife, Nancy, is Barbara Stock's stand-in as Robert Urich's girlfriend in TV's Spenser: For Hire), he also began using off-season rehab to strengthen his shoulder.
"I'm in much better shape at 33 than I was when I was 23," he says. "My fastball's come back to where I can throw it 90 miles an hour sometimes. Because of that, I can come inside on lefthanders again, which I wouldn't do for years."
Still, Eckersley loses velocity if he pitches on consecutive days, so Oakland Manager Tony La Russa tries not to use him in back-to-back games. But the Athletics' bullpen is loaded, with raw-boned Eric Plunk and Gene Nelson as righthanded setup men and Rick Honeycutt and Greg Cadaret from the left side. That pen, plus a reliable rotation led by ace Dave Stewart (6-0 at week's end), gives Oakland a pitching staff that rivals the Kansas City Royals'. The Athletics had 14 saves in April, compared with four for the Royals, and Eckersley could spell the difference come summer's dog days, when the starters pitch fewer innings.
WHAT HAPPENED TO...
Sam McDowell was one of those players who was going to be great. Everyone said so. Only Sudden Sam never quite got there. When he didn't achieve greatness in Cleveland from 1961-71, the Giants traded Gaylord Perry and Frank Duffy for him so he could be great in San Francisco. He wasn't.
Here are five more recent can't-miss kids who have yet to reach superstardom:
?Von (Five-for-One) Hayes, Phillies. He's a pretty good player, but he's no better now than he was when Philadelphia got him from the Indians for five players in 1982.
? Leon Durham, Cubs. He has 69 RBIs to show for all of last season plus the first month of '88. The Cubs couldn't give him away during spring training so they could make room for Mark (Amazing) Grace.