Dennis Lee Eckersley (born October 3, 1954), nicknamed "Eck," is a former American Major League Baseball player. Eckersley had success as a starter, but gained his greatest fame as a closer, becoming the first of only two pitchers in Major League history to have both a 20-win season and a 50-save season in a career (the other being John Smoltz).
He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2004, his first year of eligibility. He is also noted as the pitcher who gave up a dramatic, walk-off home run (a phrase Eckersley coined after this home run) to the injured Kirk Gibson in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series.
Eckersley was born in Oakland, California. He was drafted by the Cleveland Indians out of Washington High School of Fremont, California, in the third round of the 1972 amateur draft, and made his Major League debut on April 12, 1975. He was the American League Rookie Pitcher of the Year in 1975, compiling a 13–7 record and 2.60 ERA. His unstyled, long hair, moustache, and live fastball made him an instant and identifiable fan favorite. Eckersley pitched reliably over three seasons with the Indians; he even threw a no-hitter on May 30, 1977, against the California Angels.
Eckersley was traded with Fred Kendall on March 30, 1978 to the Boston Red Sox for Rick Wise, Mike Paxton, Bo Diaz, and Ted Cox. In the book The Curse of Rocky Colavito, author Terry Pluto noted that the trade was necessitated by an awkward situation, namely that his wife had left him for teammate Rick Manning. Over the next two seasons, Eckersley won a career-high 20 games in 1978 and 17 games in 1979, with a 2.99 ERA in each year. However, during the remainder of his tenure with Boston, from 1980 to 1984, Eckersley pitched poorly. His fastball had lost some steam, as demonstrated by his 43–48 record with Boston. He later developed a great slider.
Eckersley was traded on May 25, 1984 with Mike Brumley to the Chicago Cubs for Bill Buckner, one of several mid-season deals that helped the Cubs to their first postseason appearance since 1945. (It also later on proved to be a fateful transaction in Boston Red Sox history; see 1986 World Series). Eckersley performed poorly in his sole start for the Cubs in their NL Championship Series with the San Diego Padres.
Eckersley remained with the Cubs in 1985, when he posted an 11–7 record with two shutouts (the last two of his career). Eckersley's performance deteriorated in 1986, when he posted a 6–11 record with a 4.57 ERA. After the season, he checked himself into a rehabilitation clinic to treat alcoholism. (Eckersley noted in Pluto's book that he realized the problem he had after family members videotaped him while drunk and played the tape back for him the next day.)
Eckersley was traded again on April 3, to the Oakland Athletics, where manager Tony La Russa intended to use him as a set-up pitcher or long reliever. Indeed, Eckersley started two games with the A's before an injury to then-closer Jay Howell opened the door for Eckersley to move into the closer's role. He saved 16 games in 1987 and then established himself as a dominant closer in 1988 by recording a league-leading 45 saves. He recorded saves in each of the four games the A's won in sweeping the Red Sox in the 1988 AL Championship Series, and in the 1989 World Series he secured the victory in Game Two, and then earned the save in the final game of the Series, as the A's swept the San Francisco Giants in four games.
Eckersley was the most dominant closer in the game from 1988 to , finishing first in the A.L. in saves twice, second two other times, and third once. He saved 220 games during the five years and never posted an ERA higher than 2.96. He gave up five earned runs in the entire season, resulting in a microscopic 0.61 ERA. Eckersley's control, which had always been above average even when he was not otherwise pitching well, became his trademark; he walked only three batters in 57.7 innings in , four batters in 73.3 innings in 1990, and nine batters in 76 innings in 1991. In his 1990 season, Eckersley became the only relief pitcher in baseball history to have more saves than baserunners allowed (48 SV, 41 H, 4 BB, 0 HBP).
He was the American League's Cy Young Award winner and the American League's Most Valuable Player in 1992, a season in which he posted 51 saves. Only two relievers had previously accomplished the double feat: Rollie Fingers in and Willie Hernandez in . In , the Phillies' Steve Bedrosian was named the National League Cy Young Award winner. Since Eckersley, one other reliever, Éric Gagné, has won Cy Young honors (Gagné won the National League award in with the Los Angeles Dodgers). His numbers slipped noticeably following 1992: although Eckersley still was among the league leaders in saves, his ERA climbed sharply, and his number of saves never climbed above 36.
In 2002, then-Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz matched Eckersley's feat of having a 20-win season and a 50-save season.
When Tony LaRussa left the A's after the 1995 season, he became the St. Louis Cardinals' new manager and arranged to bring Eckersley along with him. Eckersley continued in his role as closer and remained one of the league's best, but following the 1997 season, he signed on with the Red Sox for one final season, 1998. Eckersley's 390 career saves ranks fifth on the all-time list.
He currently works as a studio analyst for the Boston Red Sox on NESN. Primarily, Eckersley provides post game coverage, working to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the team's play. He also has a multi-year deal with TBS to serve as an analyst for their post-season coverage. In the Spring of 2009, regular NESN commentator Jerry Remy took time off for health reasons. Eckersley filled in for Remy, providing game coverage alongside Don Orsillo. Unlike many other commentators, he is willing to point out sloppy plays by the team that employs him. This has earned him the nickname "Honest Eck" among fans
Eckersley has been known to use the phrase "cheese" referring to a pitcher's ability to throw in the mid to upper 90's.  He also spends time with kids Jake and Allie. During the summer, Eckersley lives in the Turner Hill golf community in Ipswich, Massachusetts.
The role of the closer had been around since the late 1950s and early 1960s (Pittsburgh Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh is credited with inventing the role by using Elroy Face late in close games), and there had always been feared relievers and closers with Hall of Fame-caliber careers, such as Rollie Fingers, Bruce Sutter, and Rich "Goose" Gossage. However, even in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a closer was considered a weaker and less valuable pitcher than a top starter. Pitchers started games and if they were real men, they finished them (or so the mentality went). Relievers were either "firemen" (pitchers who only came into pressure-packed situations, with runners on and few out late in a game, and thus "put out the fire"), or pitchers not good enough to start; the vast majority of relievers were considered to be the latter.
The A's used Eckersley almost exclusively for the ninth inning and inserted him regardless of the pressure or game situation. Instead of being a fireman or a mop-up man, Eckersley became a one-inning pitcher. Starters were no longer expected to finish games; there was another pitcher who was coming into the game in the ninth inning, no matter what. Although the idea of a dedicated closer was hardly new (Lee Smith was already closing for the Cubs by the time Eck was converted to the closer role), it was rejected outright by old-school purists; it took Tony La Russa and Eckersley to popularize it.
Eckersley's incredible short-term dominance of the position was perhaps the most influential aspect of this popularization. He was seen to shut down a game after the eighth inning; he was fresh, cocky, and usually hit his spots. He pointed his finger at an opposing batter after a whiff or a ground out (something Eck was known for because of his great sinker, a pitch he primarily developed after becoming a closer) or at the opposing dugout, and his glare became well-known after he and Boston's Dwight Evans famously battled during the 1988 and 1990 playoffs.
After Eckersley, every team wanted a pitcher who would end a game after eight innings, save their starters from overextending themselves, and give their fans something exciting to look forward to late in the game. Although the value of a closer is still debatable, Eckersley's influence is indisputable; by 2006, the notion of a team without a dedicated closer seemed as ridiculous as a pre-Eckersley team with one. In fact, a complete game by a starter is now rarer than a save by a relief pitcher was 40 or 50 years ago.
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