The Top 100 Cubs Of All Time - #96 Dennis Eckersley

This profile is by BCB reader Gregory, but before his portion begins, a note from me: you may wonder why a Hall of Fame pitcher, who had perhaps the greatest season (1990) ever for a major league closer, ranks only 96th on this list. It's because Eckersley's Cub career was so brief -- only 2 1/2 seasons -- and one of those seasons (1986) was Sean Marshall-esque (6-11, 4.57 ERA). He appeared in only 82 games as a Cub -- less than 10% of his total games, and less than a quarter of all his starts. If only... Trivia note: Eckersley's first start as a Cub was on May 27, 1984. In that game, he wore uniform #40, rather than the familiar #43 he wore the rest of his career. The game was notable for a couple of ejections (including Reds pitcher Mario Soto); if you read the play-by-play, it says "mgr. Frey ejected sometime". I can elaborate on that -- Frey (and coach Don Zimmer) were both ejected in the 8th inning, when Eddie Milner hit a ball that was clearly foul, but was ruled a HR by then-rookie umpire Steve Rippley. A long delay ensued while Zimmer had it out with Rippley. Note also that Eckersley threw a CG in a loss -- that's something that almost never happens in modern baseball.

Now, on to Gregory's profile of Eckersley:

Dennis Eckersley's place in Cubs lore is an example of the peculiar sort of tunnel vision common to those who root for a specific team. He went into the Hall of Fame wearing an Oakland A's cap, as for a five-year period as the A's closer he was as invulnerable as any major-league pitcher has ever been; he pitched a no-hitter as a starter for the Cleveland Indians, with whom he broke into the bigs by throwing a three-hit shutout in his first start; and he had his greatest success as a starter with the Boston Red Sox. But in Chicago he will always be known as a Cub, because he was one of the starters for the 1984 team that won the National League East and ended 39 years in which the Cubs ended each season looking up in the standings at somebody else.

Eckersley had a colorful personality to match his long and eventful career. He was brash and verbally aggressive on the mound, and a highly-quotable interview subject off of it. Some attribute to Eckersley the nicknames "yakker" and "cheese" for a curveball and a fastball. Although his wife left him because she refused to move with him from Cleveland to Boston, "Disco Denny" very quickly became one of the most popular Red Sox during his time in Beantown. That notoriously volatile fan base made him pay the price, though; the tires of his car were slashed after he was hit hard in a loss to the hated Yankees, forcing him to abandon his personalized "THE ECK" license plates, and he began to drink heavily to relieve the pressure of being Boston's #1 starter.

After a horrific 1983 season in which he went 9-13, 5.61, it was plain to see that he was not long for the Hub. The Red Sox waited until the next season began before they traded him, shipping him to the Cubs on May 25, 1984 along with minor-league infielder Mike Brumley in exchange for first baseman Bill Buckner. The trade was highly unpopular in Chicago, where Buckner was an established star and Eckersley was seen as washed up, and highly popular in Boston for the same reasons. However, in retrospect it's a deal that Cubs fans look back upon fondly (because of 1984) and Red Sox fans would rather forget (because of 1986).

Three weeks later the Cubs traded for Indians starter Rick Sutcliffe, and together with a revitalized Eckersley and the established trio of Steve Trout, Scott Sanderson, and Dick Ruthven the Cubs went on to win the NL East. Although Ruthven was no great shakes as the fifth starter, the other four constituted one of the best quartets of starters the Cubs have been able to muster in the club's long history, comparing favorably in terms of ERA+ to the numbers posted by Jenkins/Holtzman/Hands/Selma in 1969.

Eckersley was strictly a two-pitch pitcher, relying upon his fastball and slider. But by this point in his career he was already renowned for his control; he would only give up 212 free passes in the nearly three full seasons and 530 2/3 innings he pitched for the Cubs. However, his contribution to the 1984 Cubs ended on a sour note, as the Padres touched him up for nine hits and five earned runs in 5 1/3 innings in Game Three of the NLCS, turning the series around in the process.

The next year Eckersley developed tendinitis in his throwing arm, becoming one of numerous Cubs pitching casualties that spent part of the year on the disabled list (at one point, all five of the rotation starters who began the season in the rotation were on the DL at the same time. Sound familiar?). In spite of his arm troubles and the struggles of the team as a whole, Eckersley still managed to finish the year at 11-7, 3.08. He led the league in strikeout-to-walk ratio and finished near the top in several other pitching categories.

Drinking more heavily than ever, Eckersley had a disastrous 1986. Although he stayed healthy, his ERA ballooned to 4.57 and he went only 6-11. Cubs GM Dallas Green became desperate to trade him and his $3,000,000 salary, and in spring training he managed to unload Eckersley and retread infielder Dan Rohn to the Oakland A's for three unheralded minor-leaguers. The Cubs were forced to pay part of Eckersley's 1987 salary, and none of the minor-leaguers acquired for him (Mark Leonette, Brian Guinn and David Wilder) ever made it to the big leagues, though Wilder became a baseball executive, including several seasons as Cubs farm director; he is now director of player development for the White Sox.

What neither Green nor anyone else in the Cubs front office knew was that Eckersley had checked himself into the Edgehill Newport treatment center in Rhode Island during the off-season and had learned how to handle his alcoholism. When A's closer Jay Howell came down with a sore arm early in the season, A's manager Tony LaRussa turned to Eckersley and made him his closer. The rest, as they say, is history. That off-season deal with the A's became yet one more trade that Cubs fans would harp upon in years to come.

Eckersley was elected to baseball's Hall of Fame in 2004, with 85% of the vote -- something we Cub fans would never have imagined could happen when he left the team after the 1986 season.

Dennis Eckersley's career stats at baseball-reference.com

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