Dennis Eckersley was named to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
That’s right, he was that good. He also was named Number 98 in the top 100 Greatest Baseball Players by the Sporting News in 1999…yes, he was that good….one of the best relief pitchers of any era.
Dennis grew up in Fremont, California, not far from San Jose, and in the shadow of both Candlestick Park and the Oakland Coliseum, the home of the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s. He was a big fan of the Giants, and emulated the famous high-leg kick ala Juan Marichal. He had a mean, side-arm delivery that served him well and he played for 6 major league teams and pitched in over 1,000 games, a record he set at the time of his retirement from the game.
Dennis was one of the few pitchers to be highly successful after moving from being a starting pitcher to a relief pitcher. He is one of only two pitchers in major league history to have both a 20 win season as a starter and a 50-save season as a relief pitcher. For 20+ seasons after his retirement in 1998 he worked as a TV color commentator for TBS and for the Red Sox.
But most of us remember Dennis for the pitch he threw in the 1988 World Series that resulted in him actually coining the phrase “walk-off home run”. Although these words are commonly used today, prior to that pitch, there must have been some other sentence used to describe a ball game ended by a long home run by the home team…
Eckersley had been traded to the A’s in 1987, and in 1988 became the dominant relief pitcher in the American League. He was happy to return to the Bay area to be part of the league’s best team, and help lead them into the 1988 World Series against the underdog Los Angeles Dodgers.
So most of us know the rest of the story…how Dennis came into to close out Game 1 of the World Series in the 9th inning, with the A’s leading 4-3 as a result of an earlier grand-slam home run by Jose Canseco; How Eckersley quickly got Mike Scioscia to pop out, followed by striking out Jeff Hamilton. But then Mike Davis, a former Oakland A himself, got aboard on a walk bringing the potentially winning run to bat ….and so, hobbling up to the plate came the unlikely figure of the injured Kirk Gibson.
8 pitches later, on a 3-2 full count, swinging almost entirely with his upper body, Kirk somehow muscled the backdoor-slider over the wall, giving Dennis Eckersley the basis for one of the most famous and long remembered “walk-off home runs”. The Dodgers had won 5-4. Kirk Gibson’s moment was etched into history. And Dennis Eckersley Hall of Fame career was forever annotated with the story of the walk off home run. The Dodgers won the series 4 games to one.
As for Kirk Gibson, a legend was born. Though that was Gibson’s only at bat in the ’88 World Series, he was more than a one-hit wonder. Gibson actually was named the MVP in the National League that year, unrelated to his 9th inning heroics of that October day. In 1995, 7 years later, the walk-off swing was named as the greatest moment in Los Angeles sports history. Eckersley went on to complete a hall-of-fame career….but of course we will always remember just that wonderful moment when he threw that back-door slider, on a 3 and 2 pitch, to an injured player, who somehow reached out and sent it flying into baseball history…..