Eckersley’s career path keeps 1988 in perspective
Dennis Eckersley saw action in three World Series, but will forever be remembered for the result of one famous pitch in 1988.
In arguably one of the most memorable moments in baseball history, the Oakland A’s closer and future Hall of Famer surrendered a dramatic two-out, two-run home run to a hobbled Kirk Gibson of the Dodgers in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 1 of the World Series. Los Angeles would go on to win not only the game, 5-4, but also the Fall Classic in five games.
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In an interview with the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Eckersley recounted not only the Gibson homer but his thoughts on his other World Series moments.
In 1988, Eckersley’s first year as the full-time closer, he finished with 45 saves, one behind Dave Righetti’s then major league record, and was runner-up to Frank Viola in the AL Cy Young Award voting. He went on to save all four A’s victories in the ALCS against the Red Sox. Up next was the World Series against the Dodgers, where the 104-58 A’s – led by Bash Brothers Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco – were heavy favorites over the 94-win Dodgers.
“You have to go back to that time in my life. When I got to Oakland in ‘87 I was recovering, I’m an alcoholic, and I went to rehab and nobody knew it. And then I took off in another career, which was relieving,” Eckersley said. “I started to come out of the bullpen and I had a good year. I followed up in ‘88 where I saved a bunch of games. My life totally turned around. And I go to the ALCS, I’m the MVP, I save four games against Boston. We swept them and I was on top of the world.
“We went to Dodger Stadium, Game 1, and I come in in the ninth inning and everybody knows what happens next – the backdoor breaking ball. The whole thing was devastating. But you have to remember I was so appreciative of where I had come from. So something like that wasn’t as damaging because I had to be accepting of a lot of things to get to that point. So to accept that home run was a lot simpler for me. I was just becoming who I was. I’m fortunate to be where I was at that time to handle that moment. And that will always stay with me the rest of my life.”
Eckersley added that he’s become very close to Gibson over the ensuing three decades.
“Unfortunately, Kirk’s been going through some issues with Parkinson’s disease, but I will always be attached to this guy,” Eckersley said. “And it’s one of the greatest moments in the history of the game. I just happened to be on the raw end of it. But you know something? I made it to the Hall of Fame, so I’ll take that any day of the week.”
Eckersley was also a part of the 1989 “Battle of the Bay” World Series between Oakland and the San Francisco Giants, a matchup remembered for the earthquake that occurred before the start of Game 3. The magnitude 6.9 earthquake would postpone Game 3 for 10 days in what ultimately became a four-game sweep by Oakland.
“First of all, we won the first two games in Oakland, so this is the first game in San Francisco. And it was an incredibly hot October day. We’re all geared up. I’m thinking, ‘Sweet, man. We’re going to win this thing. My first World Championship.’ I was psyched,” Eckersley remembered about that fateful day. “But I’ll never forget. It was game time almost and I’m in the clubhouse bathroom combing my hair in the mirror and I’m standing next to Dave Parker. And the earthquake hit. You can just imagine all of the iron in the stadium was like screeching down below in the clubhouse. It was like a train was coming through the door. And I’m from California, so I was like, ‘Earthquake!’ And we were out that door so quick it would make your head spin. And then we’re in the parking lot. That’s what I remember. But after that, everything gets hazy.
“And if they had told us that they weren’t going to play the World Series, everybody would have said OK. Luckily we did come back. We murdered the ball against the Giants. And I was lucky enough to get the ball in the ninth inning with a three-run lead. I got the last out on a great play by second baseman Tony Phillips. Tony flips it to me, I grab it, touch first base and I gave the biggest high five you’ve ever seen. And to come only a year after the Gibson homer, I was so lucky to have had that happen.”
Eckersley blazed a unique path as a big league pitcher, beginning as a young hotshot starter before transforming into the game’s top reliever. A six-time All-Star, he ended his 24-year (1975-98) career spent with Cleveland, Boston, Chicago Cubs, Oakland and St. Louis with a record of 197-171 (48-41 as a reliever), 361 games started, 100 complete games, 2,401 strikeouts, 390 saves and a 3.50 ERA.
From 1988 to 1992, he led Oakland to four AL West titles, saved 220 games, struck out 378 and walked only 38. In 1992, he became only the second relief pitcher to win both the AL MVP and Cy Young Award in the same year.
A Red Sox broadcaster with NESN since 2003, Eckersley enjoyed the fans’ return in 2021.
“After all that’s happened, it’s full blast right now, so it’s nice to be where we are,” Eckersley said.
Bill Francis is the senior research and writing specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum