#6 Dennis Eckersley
Random Thoughts: The first Hall of Famer we have come across in this set, Dennis Eckersley is one of a handful of pitchers who defined what the term "closer" has come to mean in modern baseball. If there were a Mount Rushmore of closers, Eck would most certainly be included and one can make a strong case that he might be the most important one in history. Ironically, but not unlike many accidental closers of his era, Eckersley began his career as starter and a former 20 game winner at that. In fact, he and John Smoltz are the only two pitchers in history with both 20 win and 50 save seasons to their credit. Despite all this, Eck is perhaps best remembered for the home run he yielded to Kirk Gibson and the Dodgers during game one of the 1988 World Series, one of the most dramatic walk offs in baseball history.
Drafted by the Indians, Eckersley was the 1975 AL Rookie of the Year going 13-7 with a 2.60 ERA. He pitched a no-hitter against the Angels in '77. After winning 40 games in his first three seasons Eck was abruptly traded to Boston. According to Terry Pluto's The Curse of Rocky Colavito the trade was necessitated by the awkward situation of Eckersley's wife leaving him for teammate Rick Manning. Joining a winning team helped Eck's numbers as he went 20-8 and 17-10. By 1980 Eckersley began experiencing what was then called a "dead arm" but what we now realize was likely a torn rotator cuff, tendons or ligaments. Pitching through the pain forced Eck to develop a slider, which later would become his signature "out pitch." Injuries caused his statistics deteriorate to the point that the Red Sox would trade Eckersley to the Cubs midway through the '84 season for Bill Buckner. Ironically, Eck was one of several key pickups that would catapult Chicago to their first postseason appearance since 1945. And Buckner, apart from being a great player, committed the most famous fielding error in baseball history, perpetuating The Curse of the Bambino for two more decades. Eckersley would lose his only start in the '84 NLCS to the Padres. Eck turned in a more than respectable '85 season, going 11-7 with 6 complete games and two shutouts. By 1986 however, he would hit rock bottom as the Cubs tumbled back down the standings. Following the season, Eck would check himself into a alcholism rehab clinic.
Eckersley was traded to Oakland before the '87 season and manager Tony LaRussa was using him as a veteran swingman until fate intervened. A's closer Jay Howell got injured, Eck Wally Pipped him and the rest was history. He would lead the AL in saves in '88 with 45 and '92 with 51. Eckersley was the AL MVP and Cy Young winner in 1992, a feat accomplished by only two other relievers (Rollie Fingers in '81 and Willie Hernandez in '84). Eck may have had the best season ever for a closer in 1990 when he saved 48 games while allowing five runs the entire year for a microscopic 0.61 ERA and became the only relief pitcher in baseball history to have more saves than base runners allowed (48 SV, 41 H, 4 BB, 0 HBP). In '96 Eckersley followed LaRussa to St. Louis where he would spend two seasons as the Cardinals stopper. In nine of ten seasons from 1988-97, Eck would post at least 29 saves. He made a brief return to Boston, retiring after the 1998 season.
Eckersley was inducted into the Hall on his first ballot receiving over 83% of the vote. LaRussa and Eck's specialization and impact on the modern bullpen cannot be overestimated. He is on the short list of relievers with perhaps Elroy Face, Fingers, Bruce Sutter, Lee Smith and others who created a new position, the concept of a ninth inning specialist. Because of pitchers like Eckersley, the complete game is now more rare than the save, which was not the case 50 years ago.
The Card Itself: This is the first really nice photo in the set. We see Eck right in the middle of his classic sweeping delivery with his trademark stink eye. When he was in his prime, Eckersley was as intimating a pitcher as any batter on a team hopelessly trailing the A's in the ninth inning could face. Game over.
Did You Know?: Eck notched 15 postseason saves.
Where Are They Now?: He currently works as a studio analyst for the Red Sox on NESN.
'90 Fleer Counters:
HALL OF FAME: 1
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER: 2
CY YOUNG: 1
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: 2
GOLD GLOVE: 0
SILVER SLUGGER: 1