At precisely 10 a.m. on Nov. 9, just 20 days after his team, the Oakland A's, lost the 1988 World Series, Dennis Lee Eckersley banged open the door and strode into the health and fitness facility at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester. Baseball glove in hand, coal-black hair flowing, face aglow with determination, the man known as the Eck, the American League's best relief pitcher, snapped to a physical therapist, "I've had enough time off. Put me to work."
Eckersley plunked himself down on a stool, grabbed a metal bar extending from a Cybex machine and began a series of vigorous exercises that measure muscular strength in his right shoulder. Ten minutes later the therapist, Rich Zawacki, who works with the Boston Red Sox during the season, reported to the Eck what the Cybex graphs showed: "Your shoulder is a little weak—for you. But it's stronger than any other pitcher's I've seen, including guys who have had an entire winter to rest and work out."
Eckersley laughed and said, "How can a guy win that Rolaids reliever award and not be tired at the end of the season?" Whereupon he took his glove into a nearby room, which will serve as his bullpen this winter, and began his 15 minutes of pitching to Zawacki. After that he played 18 holes of golf and an hour of one-on-one basketball with an old pal and former Red Sox teammate, pitcher Bruce Hurst, before heading for an hour-long aerobics class at 5:30.
As he is the first to admit, Eckersley, 34, has come to be "obsessed" with physical fitness. That obsession paid off in a big way in 1988. He had a major league-leading 45 saves during the regular season—which earned him second place in the Cy Young Award balloting—and also saved all four victories in Oakland's sweep of Boston in the American League Championship Series.
But Eckersley's pitching feats haven't always been so impressive, nor has he always been such a paragon of physical fitness. Indeed, during his early years in the majors he was troubled by quite another kind of obsession—alcohol. Not until January 1987, when he entered Edgehill Newport, a treatment Center in Newport, R.I., to confront what he calls "my disease," did the Eck come to grips with his addiction. Later this month his older brother, Wally, will go on trial in Colorado Springs on numerous charges, including kidnapping, sexual assault and attempted murder of a 59-year-old woman. Dennis plans to take the stand to testify as a character witness on his brother's behalf, and knows he may have to tell a story that he kept hidden from the world for years.
"I'm prepared to explain that I am an alcoholic," he says. "That's my life story. I've been carrying this thing inside me for so long, I'm actually happy it's coming out. I'd like to help other people who have this disease, but I'm still in the early stages of sobriety, and until now. I haven't been ready. I'm lucky my whole life didn't get torn apart. I could have lost my wife, my career, everything. Instead, I finally started growing up."
Major league pitching—and major league drinking—began for Eckersley when he joined the Cleveland Indians in 1975. Back then, Scotch 'n' Sirloin wasn't just a restaurant; it was the diet of choice for big leaguers. "I was in the big leagues when I was 20," recalls Eckersley. "That's the age of a college junior. How do college juniors act? How can you grow up while playing big league baseball? Well, I didn't. I don't blame baseball for my drinking, because I was an alcoholic. But the baseball life made it worse. How does the saying go? Drink to celebrate, drink to drown your sorrows. That was me—to the max."
Drinking or not, the Eck showed from the start that he could also pitch to the max. In '75 he shut out the world-champion A's in his first major league start and set a rookie record by not allowing a run until his 29th big league inning. He went 13-7, with a 2.60 ERA, and was named the American League's rookie pitcher of the year. He proved his performance was no fluke the next season by striking out 200 batters in 199 innings. Then, against the California Angels in 1977, he threw a no-hitter, which was the centerpiece of a hitless streak that spanned 22⅓ innings. The only player ever to pitch more consecutive innings without relinquishing a hit was Cy Young himself, whose streak reached 25⅓ in 1904.
In 1978, at the ripe age of 23, the Eck was traded by the Indians to the Red Sox for four players. He responded with a dazzling 20-8 record and a 2.99 ERA. The next season he was leading the league in wins with a 16-5 record in August, but working on three days' rest wore him out. For the first time, pitching began to hurt. "I had never had to think about throwing strikes," he says, "but all of a sudden, something didn't seem right." He lost five of his last six decisions to finish 17-10.
Back then, the Eck was a wild-haired stylist whose delivery was so rhythmic that he sometimes appeared to dance on the mound. "God, did opposing players hate me," he says. "But I didn't mind them hooting on me. They didn't bother me. I was emotional, and I was cocky, but I also was real. That was no act."