Sunday, July 25, 2004

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Long before the Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards, the World Series title and legendary status as the dominant closer of his era, Dennis Eckersley’s life was falling apart.

There was early fame and fortune as a hotshot starter in the late 1970s for the Cleveland Indians and Boston Red Sox. But privately Eckersley was battling the demons of alcohol, and soon enough his marriage fell apart as his wife moved in with Indians teammate and occasional drinking buddy Rick Manning. Eckersley’s life practically could have been a VH1 “Behind the Music” special had cable TV been in the mainstream at that time.

The Hall of Fame was just about the furthest thing from Eckersley’s mind. His focus was simply surviving, both personally and professionally.

“When I look back at the difficult moments in my life, I should have seen the writing on the wall, maybe much sooner,” Eckersley said. “It takes what it takes and it took what it took, and I got help at the right time. I wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t gotten help.”

Eckersley, along with the steady, productive Paul Molitor, will be inducted today into the National Baseball Hall of Fame as overwhelming first-ballot choices. While neither attained the massive level of fame enjoyed by such recent inductees as Ozzie Smith and Nolan Ryan, each posted the type of solid, lengthy and prolific career on which the Hall of Fame is built. A record 49 of 58 living Hall of Famers are scheduled to attend today’s ceremonies.

“I think we both understand the magnitude of being inducted, particularly in our first year of eligibility,” Molitor said. “It’s overwhelming in a lot of ways.”

After another decade-plus of hard drinking, hard living and hard throwing, Eckersley slowly began to rebuild his life in 1987, first by agreeing to move from a starter to reliever in order to save his career and then by entering rehab and getting sober. Adversity quickly struck the next year, however, when Kirk Gibson blasted a game-winning, ninth inning home run in Game1 of the World Series, propelling the Los Angeles Dodgers to the title over the heavily favored Oakland Athletics.

The homer repeatedly tops lists and fan polls around the country of the most memorable moments in baseball history.

“It’s an incredible moment for baseball, it really was, but just a horrible moment for me,” Eckersley said. “It was devastating, people thought, ‘You poor thing,’ but I really didn’t feel like a poor thing at all. My life had turned around and I was as happy I could be from where I’d come from.”

Unfazed by that heartache, Eckersley then promptly rattled off perhaps the most dominant four-year run by any reliever, saving 168 games, posting an 1.79 ERA and walking 27 batters in 281 innings while striking out 308. He capped off the stretch by winning both the Cy Young and MVP awards in 1992.

“I was just so aggressive,” he said. “I went after hitters and every time I threw the ball I thought they were going to make an out. That’s how I had to approach it.”

Eckersley, even with more than 150 wins as a starter and an impressive 197 overall, is only the third player to be inducted into the Hall of Fame as primarily a relief pitcher, joining Hoyt Wilhelm and Rollie Fingers. Eckersley’s induction continues to spark debate over the merit of one-inning closers being enshrined with the rest of baseball’s immortals. Similarly dominant Rich Gossage and Bruce Sutter both have failed repeatedly in Hall of Fame votes, and Jeff Reardon and his 367 saves have warranted barely an extended glance.

“The game is totally changing. The question is what’s going to happen when somebody drops a 500 [career] save bomb out there,” said Eckersley, who expressed support for Gossage and Sutter. “It’s going to happen.”

Molitor, too, saw his career potentially end many times before finally retiring after the 1998 season. The St. Paul, Minn., native was frequently injured, played more than 150 games in a season eight times in a 21-year career and switched positions five times before finally settling in as a regular designated hitter for the latter half of his career.

Molitor also did not display prodigious home run power, even in an era when homer totals ballooned sharply across baseball. He ended his career with 234 but ranks eighth all-time in hits with 3,319, topped .300 in batting average 12 times and won the 1993 World Series MVP trophy.

His biggest time in baseball’s limelight, however, came six years earlier when he batted safely in 39 consecutive games. While still well short of Joe DiMaggio’s hallowed record of 56, Molitor’s streak has not been matched in the 17 years since.

“When I used to look in the on-deck circle and Molitor was the hitter, I didn’t want to face him,” Eckersley said. “I didn’t really know how to get him out because he could do so many things. With Molly, he had the quickest bat.”

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