Eckersley’s Remarkable Career Began in Cleveland
Craig Gifford | On 30, Mar 2014
Of all the players who started their careers with the Indians only to make their names elsewhere, Dennis Eckersley is perhaps one of the best known. He was also arguably the most successful of those such players while taking the field in Cleveland.
Eckersley is most famous for being the great closer for the Oakland Athletics in the late 1980s and first half of the 90s. However, he began his career as an All-Star starting pitcher. He would have been a very quality starter if he had not been moved to the bullpen where he put up Hall of Fame numbers.
The Indians drafted Eckersley out of high school in the 1972 amateur draft. It would be less than three seasons later that Eck would make his debut for the Tribe at the tender age of 20-years old. He began building his storied career on April 12, 1975. While not winning the Rookie of the Year Award, Eckersley had a fine first season with Cleveland. He was 13-7 with a 2.60 ERA. With that, Eckersley had proven he’d arrived as a quality big leaguer and would not see the minors again until the twilight of his playing days.
Eckersley remained a front-line starter for the Indians the following two seasons, winning 13 and 14 games. The 1977 campaign, his last on the shores of Lake Erie, saw the future Hall of Famer reach the first of his six All-Star games. He was 14-13 that season with a 3.53 ERA. That year also included a no-hitter for Eckersley. It seemed, at that point, Cleveland had an All-Star starter for years to come.
However, Cleveland’s hand was forced in the spring of 1978, and the Tribe had to trade away it’s 23-year-old star. Eckersley’s wife had left him for then-teammate and center fielder Rick Manning. To avoid an awkward situation, the Indians dealt Eckersley to Boston. While with the Red Sox, Eck continued to build on his success of his first three seasons. Those first two seasons in Beantown, Eckersley won 20 and 17 games, finishing in the top seven for the Cy Young Award voting each year.
After those two terrific seasons, though, Eckersley’s success as a starter began to wane. He never won more than 14 games again and had ERAs over 4.00 in four of the next seven seasons. He was traded to the Cubs in the middle of 1984 in a trade deadline deal. Going to a contender seemed to revitalize Eckersley, for a little while. He went 10-8, 3.03 after the trade, helping Chicago to the National League Championship Series. He was 11-7, 3.08 in 1985.
In 1986, the wheels fell off again. Eckersley was 6-11 with a 4.57 ERA. On April 3, 1987 Chicago traded Eckersley to Oakland. He started two games the rest of his career. Oakland saw something in the 32-year-old to make Eckersley its closer. The A’s were richly rewarded. Eckersley made a seemingly smooth transition to the pen, closing 16 games his first year in the Bay Area. The following season, he began a run of 10 straight years in which he was considered one of, if not the, best closer in the game. He saved a league-high 45 games in 1988, finishing second in the Cy Young voting and helping Oakland to the World Series. The next two seasons, Eckersley and Oakland enjoyed success winning the 1989 Fall Classic and reaching the World Series in 1990. Eck saved 33 and 48 games each of those years.
Following another strong year in 1991, Eckersley had his most fruitful season in 1992. He saved a career high 51 contests that year to go with an absurd 1.91 ERA. The amazing season earned Eckersley the honor of being name both the Cy Young Award and Most Valuable Player Award winners in the same year. He held the distinction as the only man to turn that trick until Detroit’s Justin Verlander did the same in 2011.
As Eckersley’s time in Oakland went on, team success for the A’s began to drop. Following the 1995 season, highly successful manger Tony LaRussa left Oakland for St. Louis. Eckersley later joined his manager with the Cardinals. The 41-year-old was traded to St. Louis on February 13, 1996.
Those final three years in Oakland, Eckersley appeared to be showing signs of age, with ERAs over 4.00. With the Cardinals, he enjoyed two stronger years, with 30-plus saves each season and his ERA getting back into the 3.00s. He spent one last season in baseball, 1998, as a reliever with the Red Sox. He did not close games that year.
Eckersley retired following his 24th season, at the age of 44. His final numbers were superb, with 197 wins and 390 saves. Had he started his whole career, he might have approached the 300 win mark. Had he closed his whole career, who knows where he would have set the saves record, but he surely would have set it.
As for his time as an Indian, Eckersley was successful. However, it was so early in such a long, great career that those three seasons are more of a footnote than anything. In fact, Eckersley’s most memorable moment in Cleveland came while with the visiting A’s in 1995. That year, a young Manny Ramirez hit a mammoth game-winning home run to the left field bleachers. Following the bomb, Eckersley could be seen mouthing the word “wow!” It’s a good thing for him that he had a lot more “wow” moments going for him than against him in his Hall of Fame playing days.
Photo: Ron Kuntz/Diamond Images