Countdown To Pitchers And Catchers: #37 Dennis Eckersley

Today continues our countdown to the start of Indians pitchers and catchers reporting to Goodyear, Arizona on February 20. We’ll count down the days, profiling a former Indian who wore the corresponding number. Some players will be memorable, others just our favorites and some, the only one we could find who wore that number. Today, we chronicle the career of Dennis Eckersley.

By Mike Brandyberry

Before he was a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, a transcendent player or one of the first modern closers, Dennis Eckersley was a Cleveland Indian. Eckersley was synonymous with jersey #43, but with the Tribe, he was #37.

Eckersley was a third round draft pick by the Indians in the 1972 MLB Draft. After a couple seasons in the minor leagues, Eckersley made his major league debut with the Indians in 1975, as a starting pitcher. Despite being a starting pitcher, he did occasionally pitch in relief that season and recorded his first career save, a prelude of what was to come. He was 13-7 his rookie season.

After a full season in the Indians’ rotation in 1976, his crown moment as a member of the Tribe was May 30, 1977. On Memorial Day, Eckersley threw a no-hitter against the California Angels, 1-0. He only allowed two base runners in the contest. At only 22-years old Eckersley was an American League All-Star that season and finished with a 14-13 record and 12 complete games. The Tribe had a budding ace on their hands for the future.

However, a problem was brewing. Eckersley’s wife, Denise, was having an affair with his best friend, outfielder Rick Manning. The Indians’ front office learned of the developing problem and decided to trade one of their young stars. The decision was made to trade Eckersley, feeling Manning had a greater upside. On March 30, 1978, Eckersley, and Fred Kendall, was traded to the Boston Red Sox for Rick Wise, Bo Diaz, Ted Cox and Mike Paxton. Manning would later marry Denise.

Eckersley meanwhile won 20 games in 1978 with the Red Sox and became a fixture in the Boston rotation. He finished in the top-10 in the American Cy Young voting in 1978 and 1979, and was an All-Star in 1982. He was traded to the Chicago Cubs during the 1984 season to help the Cubbies make a playoff push and win the National League East.

While his career was a good one, it didn’t become legendary until Eckersley was traded to the Oakland Athletics prior to the 1987 season. It was the decision of manager Tony LaRussa to move Eckersley to the bullpen. The closer already existed, but it was just a dominant reliever who would pitch the final two or three innings. LaRussa had the idea to develop a bullpen, with specified roles for several relief pitchers, and make the closer a ninth inning-only position.

In this new role, Eckersley became one of the most dominant pitchers of the late 1980s and a catalyst to an era of dominance for the Athletics. Eckersley saved 45 games in 1988, but had the greatest year of his career, and one of the best by any pitcher, in 1992 when he was 7-1, with a 1.91 ERA and had 51 saves. He won not just the Cy Young Award, but the American League MVP Award.

Eckersley retired after the 1998 season with a career record of 197-171, almost all as a starter, and 390 career saves. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York in 2004.

Photo: Tony Tomsic/Getty Images

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