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BASEBALL HALL OF FAME Induction ceremony, Sunday, 10:30
a.m., ESPN Classic

More Than That One Pitch

Eckersley, who gave up Gibson's '88 homer, makes Hall as the dominant closer of his era.

July 24, 2004|Bill Shaikin | Times Staff Writer

Seldom is a man so celebrated for his success so remembered for his failure.

The televised image of Dennis Eckersley inevitably precedes the image of Kirk Gibson, jerking his elbow backward, limping around the bases and reveling in one of baseball's most glorious home runs.

The Hall of Fame welcomes Eckersley to its ranks Sunday, commemorating a career as the dominant closer of his era and one of the most dominant pitchers of any era, a career occasionally and unfairly reduced to the answer to a trivia question: Who gave up Gibson's home run in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series?

Mythology enveloped the home run from the second Gibson touched home plate -- a guy who could barely walk willed himself out of the training room, flicked a slider into the bleachers and slew the mighty Oakland Athletics. Gibson hit the last pitch of the first game and did not take another swing in the series, but his Dodgers toppled the Bash Brothers.

"It was 'Casey at the Bat,' except this time Casey hits a home run," said Angel Manager Mike Scioscia, then the Dodger catcher.

At the time, Eckersley was a washed-up starter and reluctant reliever, finishing his first full season as a closer, at 34. In retrospect, the home run is even more romantic.

This generation of Dodger fans grows up with testimony no one could have written in 1988: Gibson homered off the best closer of his time, maybe the best closer of all time.

"If you look at what he did after that, it's pretty impressive," Gibson said. "Dennis knows as well as I do that, on that day, it was just my turn. It really was not that bad a pitch, and I put an ugly swing on it."

As a starter, Eckersley had a pretty good career -- not worthy of Cooperstown in itself, but one most any pitcher would be proud to call his own.

In 1977, he threw a no-hitter, against the Angels, for the Cleveland Indians. In 1978, he won 20 games for the Boston Red Sox. He twice ranked third in the American League in earned-run average.

He appeared in the All-Star game in 1977 and 1982. He won 149 games as a starter, pitching 100 complete games and 20 shutouts.

Fame came with his second career, born again as a closer on an Oakland team that stormed into the World Series three years in a row, protected from duty before the ninth inning by Manager Tony La Russa and a talented corps of setup men.

In his new role, Eckersley made four more trips to the All-Star game. In 1992, he earned a rare double, winning the Most Valuable Player and Cy Young awards. He went 186 batters without walking one.

When he failed, he contributed too -- to baseball's vocabulary. He described game-winning hits off him as "walk-off pieces," explaining that he walked off the field in defeat after a final, unsuccessful pitch, with opponents jumping for joy around him. Today, the term "walk-off" needs no explanation.

Of course, he usually walked off the field in victory, his long black hair flopping beneath his cap, pumping his fist to acknowledge another save. He recorded 390 saves, third on the all-time list behind the retired Lee Smith, with 478, and the New York Mets' John Franco, with 424.

As the closer role has evolved into that of a ninth-inning specialist, the baseball writers who make up the Hall of Fame electorate have hesitated to vote for relievers, even those ancient ones who worked two or three innings for a save.

Rollie Fingers, like Eckersley an MVP winner, is in. Hoyt Wilhelm, the venerable knuckleballer, is in. Eckersley goes in Sunday.

No other relievers have been elected. Rich "Goose" Gossage, alongside Eckersley and Fingers in the exclusive 300-save, 100-victory club, was rejected by a majority of voters last year. So was Smith.

"It's unjustifiable those guys haven't gotten in," said Angel closer Troy Percival, who broke into the majors as Smith's setup man in Anaheim in 1995.

"Lee Smith didn't get in on the first ballot? That's sad. He's the best ever at his particular job. The people that vote have to start understanding the importance of the role. You see how many guys can't handle it when they get the chance. It takes a special ability."

While Eckersley endorses the candidacies of Gossage and Bruce Sutter, another 300-save reliever, he isn't necessarily convinced Cooperstown should be flooded by the new breed of closer, the one who gets 900 outs for his 300 saves.

"If it were just about me," Eckersley said on a conference call last week, "and being a reliever with those saves -- because the save rule is so different nowadays with the one-inning thing -- I don't think I would have gotten in. I think the uniqueness of my career got me in....

"Those guys, for me, deserve to be in there, Sutter and Gossage, because it was a whole different game back then. But I don't know what would happen if they open this thing up."

With Mariano Rivera and John Smoltz making $10 million apiece this year, Eckersley chuckled at the notion that closers are not accorded proper credit by Hall of Fame voters.

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