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One Eck Of a Guy
Peter Gammons
December 12, 1988
With an assist from his wife, ace reliever Dennis Eckersley faced his drinking problem
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December 12, 1988

One Eck Of A Guy

With an assist from his wife, ace reliever Dennis Eckersley faced his drinking problem

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After the game, Boston second baseman Frank Duffy was surrounded by 50 reporters, all demanding to know why he hadn't caught the pop-up. Eckersley came out of the trainer's room, saw the scene, rushed over and began pulling writers away from Duffy. "He didn't load the bases, I did," hollered Eckersley. "He didn't hang the 0-2 slider to Bucky Dent. The loss goes next to my name. Ask me about losing, not him."

Losing hadn't been much of a problem for Eckersley until his arm grew weary in August '79. After that, only his inconsistency was predictable. He had a bad back in '80 and was 12-14. He returned to good form in '82—good enough to start the All-Star Game—but tailed off and finished the season 13-13. Then in '83, Eck went 9-13, with a 5.61 ERA. "I hit bottom professionally," he says. "Taco [Mike Torrez] and I wore it out, partying hard. I never pitched with a hangover, and I gave it everything I had out there. But I had no arm speed. It was humiliating. Now that I look back on it, I believe that being——that year made me what I am today. I'm not proud of being——, but I'm proud that I faced the music. I never stopped pumping my arm on the mound. I realize that most opposing players think I've been a jerk on the mound my entire career. But I've never backed off. I ate a lot of crow that year, but if you can't eat crow, you can't survive."

As Eckersley suffered through 1983, his doctor convinced him that he had to rebuild the strength in his shoulder. In November, the Eck took his first stab at Cybex machines and serious workouts. The results were quick and positive. "By February, I was a different pitcher," he says. Nevertheless, Boston traded Eckersley to the Cubs for Bill Buckner. He finished the '84 season with 14 wins and helped pitch Chicago into the playoffs. In '85 he was 11-7 but missed several starts after developing tendinitis in his shoulder. The next year the wheels fell off again. The Eck was awash in booze.

"All the day games in Chicago helped do me in," he says. "I was drinking a lot, and by that time I knew I had a problem. I actually quit for a few months before the '85 season, but even though I knew I had a problem, I couldn't deal with it. I was losing all my self-esteem in self-destruction, yet I couldn't do anything about it."

In 1980, two years after the breakup of his first marriage, Eckersley married Nancy O'Neil, a model who had earned her master's in communications at Boston College. When Dennis joined the Cubs, Nancy was painfully aware of her husband's drinking, and during his first year in Chicago she began pressing him to seek help. "We were on the road to splitting up," says Nancy.

When the '86 season ended, Eckersley was at last ready to confront his problem with the bottle. On a cold day in January 1987, Nancy dropped him off at Edgehill. When she picked him up six weeks later, she was stunned at the transformation. "It was as if I'd picked up a little kid," she says.

"There was a lot of pain that produced a lot of tears," says the Eck. "I don't think I ever realized all the emotional baggage I'd carried around, but slowly it oozed out of me. When I got out, I had to feel my way around a little. I'd always been afraid of not drinking. I was afraid of life being dull. By spring training, I realized I really looked forward to living, where once I just tried to get by. I was so excited I wanted to tell the world I was sober, but I wasn't ready to take the heat."

When the Athletics acquired him from the Cubs in April 1987, they didn't know they were getting a new Eck. "We'd done the normal scouting, but all we were going on was what we saw and what he'd done in the past," says Oakland general manager Sandy Alderson.

"All I knew was that Dennis was a great competitor," says manager Tony La Russa. "We put him in the bullpen to see what would happen, and [pitching coach] Dave Duncan got the idea that he'd make a great reliever."

Eckersley got the chance to become Oakland's closer when Jay Howell, the A's pre-Eck short man, suffered shoulder problems in the second half of '87. Eck finished with 16 saves. "A year earlier, I don't think it would have worked," he says. "I couldn't have been an every-day pitcher when I was drinking. But at Oakland I changed jobs at precisely the right time, and I give the A's credit for that. They took the gamble on me by trading Howell last winter."

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