A's acquire future Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley

Part of the INSIDE PITCH series
Written by: Nick Anapolis

Just days before the start of the 1987 season, the Oakland A’s and Chicago Cubs changed history with a trade that re-wrote the definition of “reliever”.

On April 3, 1987, future Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley was traded to the Athletics along with Dan Rohn in exchange for three minor leaguers. When it was all said and done, none of the prospects made it to the majors for Chicago, while Oakland received a pitcher who would become one of the best closers to ever step on the mound.

Prior to being traded to the A’s, Eckersley spent the first half of his career with the Indians, Red Sox, and Cubs as a starting pitcher. The Sporting News 1975 Rookie Pitcher of the Year showed potential with the Indians in his first few seasons, including throwing the 200th no-hitter in Major League Baseball history in 1977.

From Cleveland, “Eck” was sent to Boston where spent seasons with the Sox, including winning 20 games in 1978.

He was then traded to the Cubs during the 1984 season. But after three years in Chicago, following a 6-11 record and off-field issues, Eckersley found himself in the Athletics’ bullpen.

Days after being traded, Eckersley made his first appearance with Oakland throwing two innings of shutout relief in a loss at Minnesota. A few weeks later – on April 25, 1987 – Eckersley would earn his first of 320 saves with the A’s. On May 31, Eckersley made what would be his final MLB start of his career.

Soon after his final start, the closer at the time – Jay Howell – suffered an injury, paving the way for Eckersley to step into the new role.

Oakland manager Tony La Russa converted Eckersley from a starter to closer – and Eckersley finished the season with 16 saves as the new A’s closer.

The next season, Eckersley would begin a five-year stretch where he compiled 220 saves, finishing at least in the top three for the American League in saves, and never finishing with an ERA above 2.96.

He would also help pitch the A’s to three straight pennants starting in 1988 by recording all four saves on his way to being named the ALCS Most Valuable Player - doing so against his former club, the Red Sox. The three-year run included a World Series sweep of the Giants in 1989 after Eckersley registered the final out of the series.

After the 1990 season, Eckersley left no doubt that he was the games best closer at the time. Known for his control, Eckersley didn’t walk his first batter until Jun. 12, 1990, a streak that last over 52 innings and 185 batters. He also became the first relief pitcher in history to have more saves than base runners in a season, en route to passing Rollie Fingers on Oakland’s all-time saves list. Allowing only five earned runs all season, Eckersley finished with an astonishing 0.63 ERA and 18.25 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

In 1992, Eckersley joined Rollie Fingers and Willie Hernandez as the only pitchers to win both the Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Awards in the same season. He finished the season with a 7-1 record, 1.91 ERA to go along with a career high 51 saves.

“I guess the favorite memories are some of the magic that happened in Oakland, we had some magic that lasted for about five years, those were some of the special times.” said Eckersley.

After nine seasons with the A’s, Eckersley followed La Russa to St. Louis at the end of the 1995 season. He spent two years with the Cardinals until finishing out his career back in Boston in 1998. At 43-years old, it would be Eckersley’s final season.

Eckersley finished his career with 197-171 record, 3.50 ERA, 2,401 strikeouts, and 390 saves - still sixth all-time. He is joined by John Smoltz as the only two pitchers in MLB history to record a 20-win and 50-save season in a career.

Eckersley retired with the most games pitched all time – 1,071, a record since surpassed – and is the only pitcher to have 100 complete games and saves in a career. Eckersley was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2004, his first time on the ballot.

Nick Anapolis was the spring 2013 public relations intern at the Baseball Hall of Fame

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Part of the INSIDE PITCH series