David Price vs. Dennis Eckersley – perhaps the hottest feud in sports today. No doubt fueled by media speculation, this feud has dominated headlines in the New England sports media over the past several days. For those of you who may perhaps be out of the loop, media reports are that Price and Eckersley had a confrontation on the team plane, Price’s teammates may or may not have clapped and Dustin Pedroia may or may not have been one of them. Rehashing this situation is outside the scope of this blog but I do want to use this as an opportunity to do a brief profile on Dennis Eckersley’s time in Boston.
A new ace rides into town
Eckersley arrived in Boston on March 30, 1978 in a trade that also brought catcher Fred Kendall over while sending Mike Paxton, Bo Diaz, Ted Cox, and Rick Wise to Cleveland. The trade had been in the works for weeks and Sox General Manager Haywood Sullivan had made his intentions to go after Eckersley known during spring training. The Red Sox were looking for a pitcher to fill out a rotation that included Red Sox veterans Luis Tiant and Bill Lee as well as new acquisition Mike Torrez. A hard throwing strikeout pitcher who had thrown a no-hitter against the California Angels in the previous season, Eckersley certainly had the potential to fill that role. Upon hearing about his trade to the Sox, Jerry Remy, who himself had just been traded from the Angels, commented to the Boston Globe that Eckersley was “one of [his] least favorite people in the league – to play against.” However, there was some concern about what the Sox had given up to get Eckersley. Giving up four promising young players was a gamble and it remained to be seen whether or not Eck would deliver.
Eckersley would be given the auspicious honor of pitching in the Sox’s home opener. When asked about the pressure that would come with such an honor, Eck simply said, “[i]t’s not a matter of pressure, I have a lot of confidence in what I do, and I go out and do my job. Doing my job – that’s the only pressure I know.” “Do Your Job,” a mantra familiar to modern day Patriots fans would serve Eck well in that first year. Under lofty expectations, he did not disappoint. The 23 year old went 20-8 with 2.99 ERA, pitched 16 complete games, and got 162 strikeouts. He lead the team in complete games, innings pitched, strikeouts, and wins. Sadly, despite finishing the regular season with a 99-63 record, the Sox would miss the postseason after losing, at home, a one game playoff against the New York Yankees on the strength of the infamous home run by Bucky Dent (but that’s a story for a different time).
1979 would bring a much different rotation for the Red Sox. Tiant had departed for the rival New York Yankees and Lee had, after feuding with manager Don Zimmer for much of 1978, been traded to the Montreal Expos. Eck would return however with similar results, posting 17-10 record with a 2.99 ERA with 17 complete games and 162 strikeouts. The future looked bright for the 24 year old. This would however prove to be Eck’s last great season in Boston.
An unexpected decline
Eck’s dominance was expected to continue into the 1980s. He was young, talented, and had just come off of two great seasons for the Sox. Fate however had other plans. He had shoulder issues during spring training and struggled out of the gate. By May, his shoulder issues had subsided and given way to back issues. Eckersley would struggle through the season and finish 12-14 with a 4.28 ERA. In addition to (and because of) being injury plagued, he had lost a lot of zip off of his fastball. We would also learn later that Eck had struggled with alcoholism throughout much of his tenure in Boston.
Eckersley would never again regain his 1978 and 1979 form, though he did get a ticket to the All-Star game in 1982 and finished that season 13-13 with a 3.73 ERA. Eckersley’s 1982 All Star game appearance would be his only appearance in the All-Star Game while in Boston. However, his performance in 1982 did not mark the beginning of a turnaround. After going 9-13 with a 5.61 ERA in 1983 and starting 1984 with a 4-4 with a 5.61 ERA, Eckersley was traded to the Chicago Cubs. Eckersley’s tenure with Boston was over and it appeared that his future in baseball was altogether in jeopardy.
As we all know, Eckersley would turn things around once he arrived to Oakland in 1987, go on to become one of the most dominant closers in the history of baseball and one of the few relievers to win a Cy Young Award, which he did in 1992. Eckersley would return to Boston in 1998 for his final season before finally hanging it up for good.
The story of Dennis Eckersley in a Boston Red Sox uniform is perhaps best remembered as a prelude, a first act to what would go on to become a Hall of Fame career. He peaked early as a dominant starter, only to suffer a rapid decline due to personal demons and injuries. When it looked like all hope had been lost however, he was able to get help for his alcoholism, re-invent his pitching style, take on a new role, and launch himself into the stratosphere. Eckersley may never have lived up to the expectations that he had on March 30, 1978 but he would go on to have a hell of a career.
As an added bit of trivia, the player that the Cubs sent to Boston to get Eck was Bill Buckner. Buckner and Dent, it wouldn’t be a good Red Sox story if it didn’t include at least a couple of elements of the Curse.