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Says Duncan, "Eck always throws strikes [he has allowed only 23 unintentional walks in the past two years], and he has the heart of a giant. His natural response is to challenge a crisis head-on. That's what makes him such a great reliever. And it's not tough on his arm if he's used right. Think of it this way: Aren't you less likely to break down running two miles every day than 10 miles every fifth day?"
Eckersley is just as satisfied as his bosses. "La Russa and Duncan really understand how to use a bullpen," he says. "I hardly ever warmed up without going in. I only pitched on back-to-back days a half-dozen times. I rarely worked more than two innings. I almost always started an inning. But while Tony and Dave made me feel like a king, it didn't make things any easier. I was still a basket case. By the sixth inning of every game, I'd think, Why am I doing this? I've got to be crazy.
"At the All-Star Game, I sat down with Jeff Reardon [of the Twins]. He's been a great closer for years, and he always looks so cool out there. I'd always heard about Rollie Fingers and Sparky Lyle, who supposedly never got bothered by anything, but the first thing Reardon said was that he's a basket case, too. God, was I glad to hear that.
"I get fired by fear," continues the Eck. "I'm scared of failure every time I go out there. I can remember Carl Yastrzemski telling me that it never gets easier, that the game just got tougher and more nerve-racking every year. Boy, was he ever right. The 45th save was tougher than the first one."
Friends gave Eckersley videotapes of the four playoff games he saved this year, but he hasn't even taken a peek at them. "I'm not looking at anything until right before spring training," he says. "Then I'll watch the playoffs to send me off positively. That's what one pitch did to my season."
The pitch he's referring to, of course, is the 3-2 backdoor slider to Gibson with two out in the bottom of the ninth in that World Series game against the Dodgers in L.A. "When he hit it, I just sank," Eckersley says. "I guess I'm glad it wasn't a Ralph Branca job that ended the season, but it was bad enough. Usually when you give one up, teammates pat you on the behind and say, 'Go get 'em next time.' We were all so stunned, no one said a thing."
Nancy stayed up most of that night listening to Dennis talk. "I hardly slept the entire postseason, but that night I was really bad," he says.
"I was on eggshells the entire time," says Nancy.
"Was I that bad?" asks the Eck.
"I didn't get gastritis worrying about the California weather," she says.