If one thing above and beyond his pitching ability marked Dennis Eckersley’s career, it was accountability. Surrender a game-ending bomb to a Dodger batter who was lucky he didn’t need to swing from a wheelchair in the first game of a World Series? Eckersley didn’t shrink. Nobody said baseball was simple. Dennis the Menace would have called that person a liar.
“You can’t walk in the tying run,” Eckersley said post-mortem that fine Saturday night in October 1988, referring to his walk of Mike Davis with Dave Anderson on deck, an on-deck presence that turned out a decoy for the leg-hobbled Kirk Gibson. “That’s why I lost the game.” Notice he said “I lost the game,” not “We lost the game.” Accountability.
Gibson had to will himself to pinch hit for Dodger reliever Alejandro Pena. He had a dead left hamstring and a swollen right knee with a combination lock on it. He’d be swinging strictly with his arms. Some thought as he approached the plate that he’d have had a less painful plate appearance if he’d gone into the batter’s box in a wheelchair.
An 0-2 count to open. A few foul ticks. A few throws to first, one of which missed bagging Davis by two seconds. A full count on a slider outside, enabling Davis to swipe second. A second slider that was intended for the back door but came right past the doorman in front of the lobby, before Gibson somehow drove it into the right field bleachers.
“In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened!” warbled Vin Scully on the television broadcast. “I don’t believe what I just saw!” hollered Jack Buck on the radio broadcast. “Never throw a slider to a cripple,” Eckersley said to reporters around his locker in the Oakland clubhouse.
Last Thursday, joining Gibson at a dinner for Joe Torre’s Safe at Home Foundation to aid neglected and abused children, Eckersley watched closely as the telecast of the home run replayed. With Gibson listening and smiling next to him, Eckersley said, simply, “God knows I should have gassed his ass.” (That’s, “I should have thrown him a fastball,” as he had to get him 0-2 in the first place, for you laymanpersons.)
Eckersley and Gibson have since become friends. The pitcher turned Red Sox broadcaster celebrates his day-at-a-time sobriety, achieved two years before Gibson made everyone else in the A’s clubhouse and home town want to reach for the whiskey bottle, and his current reputation as an effective television commentator for Red Sox games.
Gibson, outfielder turned manager of less than success, has a battle on his hands with Parkinson’s disease. “I had a little detour on the road,” Gibson said when explaining why he missed last year’s Safe at Home dinner. “I had to shake my boy Parky.” About Eckersley, he says, as he did to Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Shaikin, “We’ve struck up a little friendship. We’ll take our time, as much as we have left, and enjoy it.”
David Price, Red Sox pitcher, could stand to learn a few things from both these men about accountability and proportion.
Last month, Price fumed over a comment Eckersley made on the air. At the time nobody knew what the comment was, or even about whom. The original stories about the incident speculated that Price, who hadn’t been pitching particularly true to his reputation at the time, was the subject of an Eckersley critique and none too amused by it.
But now we know Price wasn’t Eckersley’s subject. Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy has exposed the details about what provoked the argument Price picked with Eckersley on the Red Sox team plane after that game. Shown the stats on screen from a particularly grisly minor league start by Eduardo Rodriguez during a rehab assignment, all Eckersley could say—having had perhaps a few such games himself in his time, and never shying from calling it as he sees it—was, “Yuck.”
When Eckersley headed toward the back of the plane, where Red Sox broadcasters sit by tradition, Price rose from his seat and got into Eckersley’s face, hollering sarcastically, “Here he is—the greatest pitcher who ever lived! This game is easy for him!” In the moment, Eckersley tried to say something before Price cut him off again with a pronounced “Get the [fornicate] out of here!”
Eckersley has since received outreach from owners John Henry and Tom Werner and general manager Dave Dombrowski. But not from manager John Farrell or any players as of this writing, according to multiple reports based on “Many players,” Shaughnessy wrote, “applauded” when Price dressed Eckersley down.
Dressed Dennis Eckersley down? Eckersley, who took the news of his trade to the Red Sox because an Indians teammate was having an affair with his wife by taking it out on American League hitters, winning 20, finishing fourth in the 1978 Cy Young voting, and making himself worth 7.1 wins above a replacement player.
Eckersley, who only stood up like a man after being hit for one of the most memorable game-ending home runs in World Series history, the first Series bomb ever to yank a team to a win when they opened the inning in the hole.
The Eck, with the elegant-slingshot sidearm delivery, scared sober after his daughter showed him a harrowing video of himself inebriated, standing up like a man and facing the demon square on when it wasn’t even close to too late to save his life, never mind his career.
Dennis the Menace, who pitched his way to a World Series ring in a season during which his likewise alcoholic brother was sentenced to forty years for robbery, assault, and attempted murder in an attack on a woman during a drunk, two seasons before he won a Cy Young Award and the American League’s Most Valuable Player award.
Neither Farrell, Price, nor any other Red Sox players are known to have apologised to Eckersley in the month since the plane incident. NBC’s Craig Calcaterra thinks it may be too late. “[I]f he apologizes now,” Calcaterra writes, “it’s not because he means it. He’s had a month to reflect. It’s simply because his disgraceful behavior is now all over the pages of the Boston Globe.”
It wouldn’t have mattered if Price was pitching like Clayton Kershaw at the time. Do Price or his teammates really think a Hall of Famer who pitched twenty-four seasons through hell and high water alike, some of it his own making, some of it not, doesn’t understand how hard baseball can be?
If they do, they should be dismissed forever as halfwits.