‘I got lucky, man.’ Dennis Eckersley on surviving his tough times - 24 minutes read

‘I got lucky, man.’ Dennis Eckersley on surviving his tough times

Twenty-one years have passed since Dennis Eckersley last threw a pitch in a Major League Baseball game. He’s 64 now, and his mustache is gray, but his hair — or as he calls it, his “moss” — is still long, and he looks much the same as he did when he arrived in Boston in 1978 as a brash, gifted 23-year-old hiding a heart shattered to pieces. At this moment, the Green Monster lurks over his right shoulder, just as it did during those pressure-packed years of pitching as a home and visiting player at Fenway Park during his 24-year Hall of Fame career.

But now he’s not on the pitching mound. He’s high above it in the NESN booth behind home plate, where three hours before game time Eckersley, whose cool-guy charisma, genuine enthusiasm, and candid authenticity have made him a popular and respected color analyst on Red Sox broadcasts, is percolating nervous energy as he prepares to record that night’s introduction.

“Game 62 . . . doubleheader tomorrow, Baltimore Sunday day game . . . tonight it’s the Red Sox and Tampa Bay!” he says, hitting his talking points with enthusiasm slightly amplified beyond his usual good-natured tone.

“What a pain in the ass this is,” he says during a break, with a nervous laugh.

“But you’re so good at it,” says a member of the production crew.

“No, I am not.”

He pulls on his blue suit jacket and continues his patter of keywords and statistics. There are no cue cards, just the details he thought about during his drive to the ballpark from his home in Ipswich, where he lives with his wife, Jennifer.

“The worst [expletive] part of the job,” he says to a visitor before taping. “This right here. The worst. I dread it.” Still, he nails the intro in one take.

“You can’t get too comfortable, because then it gets away from you. It’s like when you’re closing” — Eckersley’s role for the second half of his pitching career, coming into a game with a small lead in the ninth inning, a job he did as well as any ballplayer who ever lived. “You can’t get too relaxed because it gets away from you,” he says. “You always have to be on. There’s no other way for me to be. I’m into it.”

That’s Eck in a nutshell. He comes across as carefree, but he could not possibly care more about so much — baseball, his job, his wife, his friends and family, his more than 30 years of sober life. “You sense if you spend three minutes with Eck that he’s been through an awful lot in one lifetime,” says Dave O’Brien, the play-by-play voice of the Sox. “But he’s come out the other side on it. It’s so refreshing to work with somebody who is that real.”

The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, has enshrined 232 players, and if there is one among them who is distinctive in as many different ways as Eckersley, that player needs a better publicist.

Eckersley was born in Oakland, California, and raised in nearby Fremont. He fell in love with baseball when “the Giants played the Yankees in the ’62 World Series,” he says. “I was eight years old. Isn’t that when everyone falls in love with baseball, at eight years old?”

He demonstrates his pitching motion, which featured a high leg kick reminiscent of ’60s Giants ace Juan Marichal, a fellow Hall of Famer. “Marichal was my hero,” he says. “I was hooked.”

Honing his competitiveness against his older brother, Wally — also their dad’s name — two years his senior, and his brother’s friends, Eckersley starred at Washington High in Fremont. “I had a good arm,” he says. “I could whip that [expletive].” The Cleveland Indians drafted him in the third round of the 1972 June amateur draft.

The Indians were a punchline in the early ’70s — the team finished 43 games out of first in 1971 — but that gave young players an opportunity to realize their big-league dreams in a hurry. Eckersley made the team out of spring training as a 20-year-old in 1975. Two seasons later, he was an American League All-Star with a no-hitter to his credit and a reputation for brashness.

Then on March 30, 1978, near the end of spring training, Eckersley was traded to the Red Sox along with catcher Fred Kendall for an assortment of four players, none of whom wound up altering the Indians’ fortunes.

The same day, his wife Denise, whom he’d married when they were both 18 and with whom he had an infant daughter, Mandee, told him she wanted a divorce. A few months later she told him she wanted to marry his best friend, Indians center fielder Rick Manning.

“I was like, ‘How can you trade me?’ ” Eckersley says. “They were probably thinking, Well, he throws sidearm, and his wife is [sleeping with] Rick Manning. I didn’t know they knew that. I barely knew it.”

The Red Sox had acquired a 23-year-old pitcher with a golden arm, a broken heart, and a devastated soul. “I was in agony my first year here, and no one really knew that. I was [expletive] angry, man.”

“I was late all the time. I would be rolling in when batting practice was going on. I lived downtown, how the hell are you going to be late? I was angry, and someone was going to pay.” He took his anger out on opposing hitters in ’78, winning 20 games for the first time. But he was living hard. “I was single, getting divorced, and partying my ass off,” he says. At Daisy Buchanan’s in 1979, he met Nancy O’Neil, a Boston College student and aspiring model who became his second wife. But the late nights were eroding his talent, and in 1983 he posted his first losing record as a major leaguer. “In ’83 I had nothing,” he says. “My arm was dead. I got my [expletive] knocked off. It was humbling. No gas. Like, nothing happening.”

The Red Sox traded Eckersley to the Chicago Cubs in May 1984 for another player of some renown. “Nothing against Bill Buckner, but [the trade] stinks,” Sox pitcher Bob Stanley said then. Eckersley found some on-field success in Chicago, winning 27 games in three seasons, but there were no night games at Wrigley Field then, which meant he could start drinking earlier.

At Christmas 1986 while visiting family in Connecticut, Eckersley wound up drunk at the gathering. His sister-in-law recorded it on video and made him watch it the next day. “I saw the look in my eyes; I didn’t know that guy and I didn’t like that guy,” Eckersley said years later. “I had to turn off the video. I saw too much. I remember my daughter [Mandee] told my wife [Nancy], ‘I’ve never seen Dad like that.’ It was an ugly feeling in my stomach.”

In January 1987, he checked himself into an alcohol treatment facility in Newport, Rhode Island, and got sober. When the Cubs traded him to the Oakland A’s that spring, the headline in the Chicago Tribune read: “Cubs dump Eckersley, save a bundle.”

In Oakland, Eckersley was reinvented as a closer. He retained his distinctive personality, including Eck-speak, his habit of creating his own vocabulary (a partial Ecktionary: “cheese” is a fastball, “a punchout’’ is a strikeout, and “iron” is money). His manager in Oakland, Tony La Russa (now a special assistant to Dave Dombrowski, the Red Sox’ president of baseball operations), says figuring out what Eck was saying became a team pastime for the A’s. Once, La Russa went out to remove Eckersley from a game. Eckersley told him he had “salad.” La Russa had no idea what he meant — it was Eck-speak for a finesse pitcher’s repertoire, not ideal for a closer — but, wanting to seem hip and figuring Eck was pleading his case, La Russa left him in.

Eckersley wound up saving 390 games, along with winning 197 — he’s still the only player in Major League history to have 100 saves and 100 complete games. He made six All-Star teams, won the American League Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards, and won a World Series. When he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2004, he was asked what his plaque should look like. “As long as the mustache looks right, everything will be OK,” he said.

That’s vintage Eck. Jim Palmer, also a Hall of Fame pitcher, has been friends with Eckersley since the late ’70s. “You go to order a sport coat — are you going to get the nice gray dull fabric or are you going to get the live plaid? Eck’s a plaid guy,” Palmer says.

Eckersley brings that insouciance into the broadcast booth. But perhaps his most distinctive attribute is that he loves the game with the passion of a diehard fan. That is unusual among great ballplayers, who don’t necessarily love what they happen to excel at and sometimes carry themselves as if they’d rather be elsewhere. “He’ll come in and say, ‘Did you see the Oakland-Seattle game last night?’ And I’m like, ‘No, I went to bed,’ ” says Tom Caron, a NESN sportscaster. “He loves it as much as he ever did. He really does.”

“When we’re in baseball season, it’s 24/7 baseball,’’ says his wife of 14 years, Jennifer, who calls this living in “baseball mode.” Even when the Sox aren’t playing, “When we wake up . . . he has that look on his face. I’ll say ‘What’s on your mind?’ and he’ll say, ‘Baseball.’ He’s . . . thinking about the team coming in and what can he say. He really prides himself on learning everything he can about not just the Red Sox but other teams.”

The back of Eckersley’s 1993 baseball card notes that if he weren’t a player, he’d be coaching baseball. His 1992 card says his favorite musician is Richard Marx, so things change. Still, his broadcasting career came about mostly by accident. When he retired in 1998, after a farewell stint with the Sox, he called some A’s games as a fill-in analyst with former teammate Ray Fosse, then in 2003 was asked to fill in on NESN telecasts for the popular analyst Jerry Remy. “It was scary, because he had zero filter,” Don Orsillo, the play-by-play voice for the Red Sox at the time, says with a laugh. Orsillo remembers Eck saying an opposing pitcher both was fat and stank after being pulled in the fourth inning. “So we go to break and he goes, ‘Was that too much?’ and I go, ‘I think a little bit, yes. You might want to rein it in.’ ”

Like Charles Barkley on TNT’s NBA broadcasts, Eckersley’s charismatic personality and geniality allow him to get a toe or two over the line of good taste that perhaps others wouldn’t get away with. When then-Sox manager John Farrell and pitcher Wade Miley had a dugout argument in Baltimore after Farrell pulled the Red Sox pitcher for being ineffective, Eckersley asked on-air whether Miley was on acid. “It’s just so reflexive,” says Caron. “It’s kind of what we’re all thinking, but only Eck can say it.”

Players sometimes take umbrage. Red Sox pitcher David Price, whom Eckersley has criticized for his deliberate pitching style, in 2017 overheard the broadcaster utter on-air a one-word comment — “Yuck” — at the stat line of pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez after a minor league injury rehabilitation start. Price decided the team plane, with a captive audience, was the appropriate time to let Eckersley know how he felt. This is how Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy described the scene:

Price was standing near the middle of the team aircraft, surrounded by fellow players, waiting for Eckersley. When Eckersley approached, on his way to the back of the plane (Sox broadcasters traditionally sit in the rear of the aircraft), a grandstanding Price stood in front of Eckersley and shouted, “Here he is — the greatest pitcher who ever lived! This game is easy for him!” When a stunned Eckersley tried to speak, Price shot back with, “Get the [expletive] out of here!”

It was an ambush, tactless and calculated, and it still bothers Eckersley. “I didn’t know how to deal with that. I don’t plan on saying a word to him, I don’t plan on seeing him, never. [Broadcasters now board the plane before players.] I don’t really give a [expletive] one way or another. I don’t think he really cares one way or the other.”

When asked about the incident the day after it happened, Price said, “Some people just don’t understand how hard this game is.” It has to be in the running as the most ignorant sentence ever uttered about Dennis Eckersley.

“No one can ever say the game was easy for him,” says Caron. “He battled through everything. He gave up the Gibson home run.”

Ah, yes, Kirk Gibson. The injured Dodgers outfielder hobbled to the plate as a pinch hitter in the ninth inning of Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, flicked an Eckersley slider into the right field seats for the winning home run, and sparked the Dodgers’ upset victory over the A’s for the championship.

Called by the legendary Vin Scully, it was an instant classic, a Roy Hobbs moment in real life. “I wasn’t sure if I threw the ball to Gibson or Robert Redford,” Eckersley said later.

Gibson’s homer resides on the short list of the most memorable in baseball history. The reminders come around every fall when the World Series begins. “There was a commercial a few years ago during the postseason in which they showed little kids playing baseball while famous play-by-play calls in history played over them,” says Caron. “One of them was the Gibson call. So I’m sitting with [Eckersley] in the green room a couple of times a night hearing the call of that home run to Gibson [while watching the games]. He just laughs and shrugs and says, ‘They had to find that, huh?’ ”

A few years ago, Eckersley and Orsillo ran into Gibson, who’d become a Tigers broadcaster, in the hallway behind the press box at Detroit’s Comerica Park. Gibson, known for his gruffness during his playing days, had recently learned he had Parkinson’s disease, and he had something he needed to tell Eckersley.

Gibson “is unloading . . . to people he wants to apologize to,” recalls Orsillo, “and he apologizes to Eck for showing him up running around the bases. He says, ‘I never got the chance to tell you, I wasn’t showing you up, I was just reacting emotionally.’ Eck says, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. I never thought of that once. You know how many people I pointed at after I struck them out? I would have been dancing going around the bases!’ ”

Thirty years after giving up Gibson’s home run, before Game 4 of the 2018 World Series between the Red Sox and Dodgers, Eckersley threw out the first pitch at Dodger Stadium to his ailing nemesis. The two then watched much of the game together from the stands.

Eckersley is told that few people have the capacity for such graciousness, to return to the scene of a great disappointment to celebrate the person that caused it. “I just think it was supposed to happen,” he says of the home run. “And then this was supposed to happen.”

During a Red Sox-Indians game earlier this season, I saw Eckersley behind the Fenway Park press box gathering intelligence on the Indians from one of the team’s broadcasters. The other guy looked familiar, an ex-ballplayer for sure, a face from a baseball card long since lost. I turned the corner to leave the press box, and then it hit me who it was: Rick Manning.

I mentioned it to Eckersley a few weeks later, after he had brought up the affair between his first wife and his best friend, and the heartbreak and sadness that led to him being traded to the Red Sox. “He’s the father to my daughter,” says Eckersley. “I mean, it’s been 40 years. It’s not about forgiveness. It’s about moving on with your life and living it. We were all young. I was on the road half the time, and I was hardly innocent myself, and suddenly you come home and you’re not that attractive anymore. It was an ugly way to have it happen. It was painful as hell.” He pauses, then says, “[We have] a daughter together. I’ve got to be nice.”

Jennifer Eckersley marvels at her husband’s ability to forgive. “He just says you can’t give that energy, you’ve got to move on. He’s so right. I’ve seen him do it in the most difficult situations.”

She acknowledges that it took time for her to understand that maintaining his sobriety is a lifelong battle for her husband. “The whole recovery thing was new to me. It was like, ‘Well, you know, you’re good now. You’re sober, so all is well.’ You have to deal with it every day, like a disease that is in remission. You have to still care for it. I never really understood much about alcoholism until I talked to him.”

Virtually everyone you talk to about Eckersley describes Jennifer, a former lobbyist, as his stabilizing force. “I got lucky, man,” he says. “She’s sharp. She’s my whole life. She wakes up in the morning and she’s in a great mood.” He laughs. “And I look at her like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ ”

They met at a hotel pool in Florida and had their first date in Boston 18 years ago. “I did have preconceived notions of what a professional athlete would be like personality-wise,” Jennifer says. “We have a lot of friends in the field who will let you know who they are in the first minute: ‘I’m so and so, and I’m a big deal.’ He loves when people don’t know who he is. Even though he’s a public figure, he’s a down-to-earth regular guy. The reason we went on date number two was his humility. He shattered my belief of what a professional athlete would be like.”

Eckersley, incurably candid as he is, does not pretend his life is perfect. He brings up the tragedies and dark times willingly, talking of ghosts old and new that haunt him. His sister, Cindy Cowgill, died last August at age 58. “She just drank herself to death,” he says. “I still can’t believe it.” His older brother, Wally, has been in and out of prison, and was sentenced to 48 years in 1989 for the kidnapping, aggravated robbery, and attempted murder of a 58-year-old woman. In May, a New Hampshire newspaper revealed that the daughter Eckersley and Nancy adopted, who has battled mental illness and is now 22, is homeless in the state. It’s one subject he would prefer not to talk about on the record, but it’s clear the circumstances leave him aching.

“I can get heavy sometimes,” he says. “I think because of where I am in my life. I don’t want to waste time. The sun helps me . . . . My brain is not a normal brain. You’ve got to do what you can to help yourself mentally. Working out helps me.”

He knows he has a “charmed life in a lot of ways.” He isn’t big on moments. But he’s trying. And one in particular he’s looking forward to is coming this winter, when he and Jennifer will head to California — Eckersley’s daughter Mandee has 9-month-old twins. He cannot wait to be the doting grandfather on the scene. “This is precious time,” he says. “We’re camping out for five months. That’s good. I need to get out of the baseball bubble.”

Imagine that. Grandpa Eck, teaching all sorts of original lingo to his grandkids. Now, there’s a video everyone would love to see.

For now, it’s baseball mode. Eckersley has been part of NESN’s Red Sox broadcast team since 2003, mostly in the studio on the pre- and postgame shows. That has changed this year as Jerry Remy, a Red Sox color analyst since 1988, has had to cut back his schedule. Remy was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2008 and has endured five recurrences, including one last season, but is doing well now. Eckersley is calling 85 to 90 games in the booth this season, including about 30 on the road. It’s more traveling than he has done as a broadcaster, and he and NESN keep the trips short. “I don’t want to be camped out in a hotel room with my brain,” says Eckersley. “That’s a long time to think. I don’t need any more time for reflection.”

For 30 games Eckersley, Remy, and O’Brien will share the broadcast booth. The step back could be awkward for Remy, 66, but Eckersley has always been respectful of Remy’s role, and their bond is genuine. They’ve known each other since 1974, when they were both playing in the Texas League, and were Red Sox teammates from 1978-84. Sometimes during blowouts the two will venture into what you suspect are heavily redacted tales from their after-hours forays during their playing days. “A lot of the three-men booths I don’t think click,” Remy says. “But this one does, and it’s got a good response from the fans.”

For all his glory on the field, Eckersley’s most impressive save was of himself. “I used to play the role of Johnny Diva, this baseball god,” he says, “but inside, I was full of doubts. I was always like that, like, ‘Uh-oh, it’s about to go wrong.’ I fight that, but man, I’m figuring it out. I’m happy now. It’s a good life.”

His friends feel fortunate to be a part of it. “I’m happy that we have Dennis Eckersley in this world,” says Jim Palmer. “I know that sounds like it’s corny and all that, but he’s unique, he’s talented, he’s got a huge heart, he’s caring, and all of those things, and you just don’t run into too many people like that.”

Naturally, Eckersley — Hall of Fame pitcher, popular broadcaster, husband, father, grandfather, recovering alcoholic, and one-of-a-kind baseball raconteur — has his own way of putting it. “Ultimately, it’s just about being understood,” he says. “Don’t we all want that? At least, like, you want to have people meet you and say, ‘Hey, that guy’s not a [expletive].’ ”

Chad Finn is a Boston Globe sports media columnist. Send comments to magazine.com. Get the best of the magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your e-mail inbox every Sunday.Sign up here.

Source: Bostonglobe.com

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