TO WATCH DENNIS ECKERSLEY PITCH for the Oakland A’s is to understand controlled fury. Glowering at the batter, he winds up slowly, accelerating as his left knee comes up and right arm cocks hack, then slings the ball home like some enraged human whip. When the pitch catches the corner of the plate, Eckersley, the best relief pitcher in baseball, punches the air and snarls with macho delight.
“I put an exclamation point on my pitches,” says Eckersley, 38. “But sometimes I watch the tapes after a game and think, ‘Why do I do that?’ I don’t mean to show anyone up. It’s just the competitiveness in me.” It’s that competitiveness—not to mention his potential Most Valuable Player numbers: 51 saves in 53 save opportunities—that has carried the A’s to this week’s American League play-off.
But that’s just baseball stuff.
What’s truly remarkable about Eckersley is not the spin he puts on his slider but the way he’s turned his life around. “People say that when I come into the game, it’s won,” he says. “But I know I’m not invincible. I have such a fear of failure—of being bad again….”
Go back to Christmas 1986. At gut level, Eckersley knew he had a drinking problem. The year before, his wife, Nancy, who had married him in 1980, had started attending Al-Anon, a support group for families of alcoholics, and that summer she had moved out for the third time. Dennis had tried to quit, going as many as 40 days without a drink. But the struggle took its toll: ’86 was one of the worst seasons of his 11-year career.
On this particular night, Nancy was away on a two-day modeling assignment. So Dennis and Mandee, his 10-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, planned a visit in Connecticut with his sister-in-law, D.J. Perfect, Dennis thought, D.J. could watch Mandee, and he could really tie one on.
D.J. broke out her video camera to record the family get-together. But as the night wore on and Dennis got louder and louder, eventually stumbling about the room, D.J. simply mounted the camera on a tripod and let it run. As Dennis staggered downstairs the following morning, he saw D.J.’s video playing on the TV.
What he saw horrified him. “I was just having fun,” says Dennis, “but it was out of control. You could see it in Mandee’s eyes.” Eckersley will never forget what his daughter told Nancy when they went shopping two days later: “I was really scared for Dad watching him that night,” she had said. “I felt this hole in my stomach. Sick. An ache.” When Nancy confronted Dennis later, she says, “Dennis just sobbed. He said, ‘You’re right. I need help.’ That was the turning point. He hit bottom.”
On Jan. 5, Eckersley checked into Edgehill Newport, a Rhode Island rehab center. “The toughest thing I’ve ever done in my life is walk through those doors,” he says. “I know now it was a blessing. But at the time I felt defeated.”
Eckersley, who grew up in Fremont, Calif., was 16 when he began drinking regularly with his brother, Wallace, then 18. At 17, Dennis got a contract to play in the minors. “I started out in Reno,” he says. “I was playing games during the day and gambling at night. I was drinking. I was hiding behind my cockiness. I figured if I was cocky, they couldn’t see how nervous I was.”
Three years later, in 1975, Eckersley broke into the majors with the Cleveland Indians and was named the American League Rookie Pitcher of the Year. But in 1978—after a much publicized scandal in which his first wife, Denise, left him for his best friend, Indian centerfielder Rick Manning—Eckersley was traded to the Boston Red Sox. “That season I just put my nose in the game and partied my ass off,” says Dennis, who felt miserable about leaving Mandee, then 2, behind. In 1984 he was traded to the Chicago Cubs and then, in the season after his rehab, to the A’s.
He’s been off the bottle ever since. In April 1989 he testified about the destructive power of alcohol at the trial of his brother, Wallace, who was convicted as an accomplice to the kidnap—attempted murder of a 59-year-old woman.
“When I look at where Dennis has been and where he is now,” says Nancy, “I’m just amazed.” Indeed, says Dennis, “I feel so emotional about everything that has happened to me. Sometimes I wonder why it happened at all. And I think one reason was to give people hope. I’m not a special person. But I’m proof that you can beat alcohol.”
LISA ATWYMAN BESSONE with the A’s, SUE AVERY BROWN in Boston