Dennis Eckersley was one of the most dominant closers in baseball when he led his hometown A’s to the World Series in 1989. But along the way, he had to go through a journey of self discovery. He was a starter for the first 12 years of his career and eventually had to battle an addiction to alcohol. His story is one of redemption. This is his story.
Dennis Eckersley was born on October 3, 1954 in Oakland, California. He moved to Fremont when he was young and grew up rooting for the San Francisco Giants, idolizing Willie Mays and Juan Marichal. When he became a professional, Eckersley would adopt Marichal’s high leg kick in his pitching delivery. He was a quarterback on the football team and a pitcher on the baseball team at Washington High School until his senior year when he gave up football to protect his pitching arm. Winning 29 games and throwing 90 miles per hour was enough to catch the eye of the Cleveland Indians who selected him in the third round of the 1972 MLB Draft.
After spending just two years in the minor leagues, Dennis Eckersley made his MLB debut in 1975 at the age of 20. He played pretty well that first year, winning 13 games and losing seven with a 2.60 ERA. He won 13 and lost 12 the following year with a 3.43 ERA but he did set a career best 200 strikes which he would never surpass. He made his first All Star Game in 1977, winning 14 games while striking out 191 batters. Following his lone All Star season in Cleveland, he was traded to Boston. On the same day that he was traded to the Red Sox, Eckersley’s wife left him for his best friend and teammate, Rick Manning. Dennis Eckersley was devastated and heartbroken as he moved on to Boston.
Boston and Chicago
Upon joining the Red Sox organization, Dennis Eckersley continued his strong start to his career. He recorded at least 121 strikeouts each year for the first three years of his time with the Red Sox. However, a troubling trend began in 1980 when his ERA slipped from 2.99 to 4.28. He had always been known as a dominant pitcher in that category but he would never reach his past glory in that statistic as a starter. It was around this time that he began to develop a drinking problem. Despite the alcoholism, he managed to receive his second All Star Game invitation in 1982. It would be his last All Star Game as a starter.
He was traded to the Chicago Cubs in the middle of the 1984 season. In his first season and a half in Chicago, Eckersley recorded 21 total wins. Throughout his time in Chicago, Eckersley’s drinking continued to get worse and eventually he was traded to the A’s following the 1986 season. Dennis Eckersley was coming home.
Eckersley spent the offseason before his first season with the A’s in an alcohol rehab center. He had been struggling with the disease for years and eventually his family took a video of him drunk. It was an eye opening experience for him and he made a vow to overcome his addiction. He came home to Oakland rejuvenated, right when the A’s were having a resurgence of their own. The A’s hadn’t been to the playoffs since 1981 and had been building a contender for the past couple of years.
In addition to being sober, Dennis Eckersley became the A’s new closer. In his first year as a closer, he saved 16 games. The A’s made the World Series each year from 1988 to 1990, and Eckersley was magnificent in each of those years. He saved 45 games in 1988, 33 games in 1989 and 48 games in 1990. The A’s won it all in 1989, sweeping Eckersley’s childhood team the San Francisco Giants. He saved 43 games in 1991 and led the AL with 51 saves in 1992, his last All Star appearance. The 1992 season was truly special as he posted a miniscule 1.91 ERA while earning the Cy Young Award and the AL MVP, a rarity for a closer.
His ability slipped considerably during the twilight of his career. In the last six years of his career, he only reached an ERA as low as 3.30 once, reaching that decent number in 1996 with the Cardinals. Though his ERA continued to slip, Eckersley continued to shine as a closer, saving 36 games in 1993, 19 games in 1994, 29 games in 1995, 30 games in 1996 and 36 games in 1997. After spending the 1996 and 1997 seasons in Saint Louis, Eckersley finished his illustrious career in 1998 with the Red Sox. He retired with a 3.50 ERA, 390 saves and 2401 strikeouts. Dennis Eckersley was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2004.