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REMEMBERING THE MOMENT : Eckersley Puts That One Slider Into Perspective

Times Staff Writer

On a quiet spring afternoon, a long way from the tumult that was Dodger Stadium when Kirk Gibson limped to the plate and hit the two-out, two-run, ninth-inning home run that gave the Dodgers a 5-4 victory in the first game of the 1988 World Series, relief pitcher Dennis Eckersley of the Oakland Athletics reflected on the pitch and said:

“I feel like I’m a big reason we didn’t win the World Series, but I feel like I’m a big reason we got there.

“Considering where my career was two years ago, and considering how my life has changed in the two years, one home run is not going to damage that or screw it up. I feel very fortunate. I feel very happy.”

Time has worked its miracles, easing the immediate shock and consternation Eckersley experienced after delivering that “one stupid pitch.”

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But time alone has not forged his perspective.

In his first full season as a relief pitcher, Eckersley saved 45 games, one shy of the major league record. He saved four more in the American League playoffs with the Boston Red Sox and was selected most valuable player of that series.

Should one pitch detract from that?

Can one pitch be measured against a fight with alcoholism, a difficult divorce and the threat of another?

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What is one pitch when weighed against the uncertainty of his career--and life--just two years ago? How can one pitch compare to the emotional jolt of having an older brother facing trial on charges that include kidnaping, sexual assault and attempted murder?

“Besides, it wasn’t like Alfredo Griffin took me deep,” Eckersley said. “Kirk Gibson is a hell of a player, a hard-nosed guy. He was the National League’s MVP. He was the Dodgers last year.”

It was the first and last Series appearance for the National League’s MVP. It was a moment forever framed in the camera of the mind.

“The thing I’ll always remember is two of the best competitors in the game going at each other, neither giving in,” A’s Manager Tony LaRussa said. “And the thing I’ll always remember about Eck isn’t that he gave up the home run, but that he came into his first World Series appearance and blew away the first two guys on five pitches. It was no contest.

“Then he may have gotten too fine. Michael Davis didn’t have a great year, but we’d seen what he can do when you make a mistake over the middle of the plate. Eck tried to pitch him away and just missed.”

Eckersley replaced Dave Stewart at the start of the ninth with the A’s leading, 4-3. Mike Scioscia popped up. Jeff Hamilton struck out. Davis, batting .196, hit for Griffin, took the count to 3-and-1, then walked.

“He was stepping in and out of the batter’s box and it kind of drained my rhythm,” Eckersley said. “I saw him as the last out and I got impatient. I wanted to say, ‘Get to the plate! Let’s go!’ Maybe I was trying to be too careful, but I felt at the time that I was going at ‘em and that the ball was sailing on me.

“Doesn’t matter. A two-out walk is inexcusable.”

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The crowd of 55,983 erupted when out limped Gibson, sidelined by injuries to both knees, to bat for Alejandro Pena.

Surprised?

“Not at all,” Eckersley said. “It’s a one-run game in the ninth inning of the World Series. Who else would they want up there?”

Cognizant of Gibson’s sore knees and the likelihood that he would be swinging off balance, Eckersley and catcher Ron Hassey played country hardball.

Eckersley threw three straight fastballs, all of which Gibson fouled off. Then a fastball sailed wide for a ball, another was fouled off, another went wide for a ball, then a 2-and-2 breaking ball missed as Davis stole second, not drawing a throw. The count was full and Hassey called for the fatal slider, hoping he said, to freeze Gibson with a breaking ball after all the fastballs.

Gibson swung awkwardly and hit the ball deep into the right-field pavilion and the teeth of instant pandemonium.

Eckersley, who had allowed only five home runs in the 72 2/3 innings of 60 regular-season appearances, walked off, dazed.

“It kind of took the breath out of me,” he said. “It kind of took the breath out of all of us. Normally, you give up one in the ninth inning and teammates are patting you on the back and saying, ‘You’ll get ‘em the next time.’ But no one said anything. We were all too stunned.”

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Was it the wrong call, the wrong pitch? LaRussa wouldn’t say so at the time. Now?

“If I had my druthers, a fastball would have been the better pitch,” he said. “Gibson was in his two-strike emergency stance. His legs were spread, he was just looking to put the ball in play. It’s possible he could have fought off a fastball, dropped it in for a single and tied the game, but I don’t think he could have hit a fastball out of the park. In his stance, he got a pitch he could.

“The easiest people in baseball to second-guess are the manager, pitcher and catcher. You could see what they were trying to do. It wasn’t a bad idea, it just wasn’t the best idea.”

Said Eckersley: “I didn’t second-guess the call. I didn’t shake it off. I don’t think he could have hit a fastball out, but that’s hindsight.

“In my mind, I was trying to waste the pitch, give him something low and away. I think he’d have swung even if it wasn’t a strike. My mistake was that I got too much of the plate. I put it where he could handle it. Sometimes it’s not what you throw, it’s where you throw it.”

Dodger scout Mel Didier claimed at the end of the Series that he had detected a tendency by Eckersley to throw the back-door slider on full counts and had told the team about it before the Series. He said that Gibson told him he had been thinking back-door slider when the count went full.

“That’s ridiculous,” said Eckersley, who has issued only 23 unintentional walks in the last two years. “How many times do I go to a full count, let alone some scout calling it?”

Said LaRussa: “I respect Mel. I’m sure that if he scouted Dennis, he saw him throw a slider in that situation once in a while. But for every four batters he has faced with two strikes, three have gotten fastballs. Gibson didn’t hit the slider out because he was looking for it, but because he was in his emergency stance.

“I mean, I hope hitters now start looking for that back-door slider because they’ll be wrong three out of four times.”

Whether Gibson was operating on inside information or not, his home run seemed to devastate the A’s. They were never the team that had won 104 games during the regular season and had swept the Boston Red Sox in four in the playoffs.

“It hurt at the time, but we didn’t think we were dead,” Eckersley said of the homer. “We just couldn’t beat Hershiser. Everyone talks about the Series in terms of Gibson’s home run, but it was just as much Orel Hershiser’s show.”

Said LaRussa: “Do you know how many times this club suffered adversity and came back to turn it to our advantage? I think the Gibson homer helped the Dodgers more than it hurt us. No way did it cost us the Series. There were other reasons we didn’t play better.”

LaRussa also said that he expects Eckersley to bounce back with a comparable season, that he has weathered too much adversity--on and off the field--to be burdened with the memory of one pitch.

Adversity?

Eckersley, 34, won’t talk about the trial his older brother, Wally, soon faces at Colorado Springs, Colo. He confirms, however, that his own life had been plagued by alcoholism, that the highs, lows and bright lights of a career that began when he joined the Cleveland Indians at 20 exacerbated the illness. He pumped his arm after strikeouts and continued to pump it when the game was over, thinking he would miss something if he didn’t go out.

Even so, Eckersley was the American League’s rookie pitcher of the year in 1975. He struck out 200 batters in 199 innings in 1976 and threw a no-hitter against the Angels in 1977. Then, after being traded to the Red Sox at 23, he went 20-8 with a 2.99 earned-run average in 1978.

On the day that he was traded--March 30, 1978--Eckersley also got the jarring news that his first wife, Denise, wanted a divorce so she could marry his best friend, Cleveland teammate Rick Manning.

Two years later, still attempting to cope with that and his first confrontation with arm problems, Eckersley said, he married Nancy O’Neil, a model and part-time actress who had earned a masters degree in communications at Boston College.

The marriage, according to Eckersley, survives and prospers, but it, too, was in jeopardy, a potential victim, Nancy warned him, of his drinking, which reached its worst during three seasons of day games with the Chicago Cubs. Self-destruction beckoned.

“I finally knew I needed help,” Eckersley said.

In January of 1987, Eckersley entered a treatment facility at Newport, R.I. Six weeks later, having come to grips and shaken the “emotional baggage” he had been carrying, he emerged to a new life--and career. A strengthening machine replaced the bottle. The A’s, aware of Eckersley’s competitiveness but unaware of his personal problems, traded for him in April of 1987.

And when Jay Howell went down with an arm injury in mid-season, Eckersley moved to the bullpen and saved 16 games, prompting the A’s to include Howell in the three-way deal that brought Bob Welch from the Dodgers after the ’87 season.

Now, though Eckersley still operates from “a fear of failure” in his closer role, he enjoys the “feeling of greater importance.” He credits the success of the Oakland set-up men for his own 1988 success and says: “I couldn’t be in a better situation. I don’t think I ever threw three days in a row. I don’t think I ever pitched as early as the seventh inning. My arm is strong.”

And, Eckersley said, he has never felt better about himself. A friendship with Welch, who went through alcohol treatment with the Dodgers, has provided support.

“I was 31 and didn’t know where the hell I was going,” Eckersley said. “I had to make some decisions, and fortunately they were the right ones, especially when you consider that I’m now relieving. I couldn’t have done it every day, the way I was drinking.

“The most gratifying thing is that you can change your life and good things will happen. You can have hope. I think that’s what the message is.”

Eckersley said that he didn’t sleep on the night of Gibson’s homer. He and Nancy stayed up talking. Friends later gave him a videotape of his four playoff saves, but he didn’t watch it until a few days before he reported to training camp. That one pitch to Gibson was still haunting his thoughts. Now, he said, he has it in perspective. In fact, he smiled and said:

“It seems like a long time ago, but for a long time it didn’t. I’m sorry I was the one who threw it, but it was great for the TV ratings and good for baseball. I can appreciate that, though I didn’t enjoy it. I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance for redemption, but maybe Kirk and I will meet again someday. Maybe this year. That would be nice.”


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