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Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley discusses his time with the Cleveland Indians

"They said 'Hey, it's the Cleveland Indians,' and I went 'Noooooo!'"

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to talk with Hall of Famer and former Indian Dennis Eckersley Tuesday afternoon. He was in Minnesota for the All-Star Game, both as a fan of the game, and as a part of his partnership with Head & Shoulders on their "Season of the Whiff" campaign, which is raising money for RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities), a program designed to promote the game ad provide opportunities to youth in disadvantaged areas.

JL: You're in Minnesota for the All-Star break as part of a partnership with Head & Shoulders on a fundraising campaign, can you tell me a bit about that?

DE: Head & Shoulders has been doing this to raise money for RBI for years now, and the #Whiff program has been going on with Major League Baseball this year. This week you can win a trip to the World Series and have a VIP experience, with a chance to throw out the first ball. If people tweet something with #Whiff and @HSforMen during this All-Star week, they have a chance to win that.

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Eckersley is most remembered for his years as closer for the Oakland A's, when he helped the team win three American League pennants and the 1989 World Series. He also won the 1992 AL Cy Young Award. Those were the years that cemented his spot in Cooperstown. He was an All-Star starting pitcher before that though, and his career began with the Indians.

From 1975 through 1977 Eckersley pitched 633.1 innings for the Tribe, winning 40 games and striking out 543 batters. Despite playing only three season with the team (before a misguided trade sent him to Boston), he was #76 on our countdown of the 100 greatest players in franchise history. Only Bob Feller pitched better for the Tribe at such a young age.

JL: What are your memories of being drafted by the Indians?

DE: It's funny. When that happened I was hoping to go higher in the draft, but I went in the 3rd round. I remember waiting for the phone call, and they said, "Hey, it's the Cleveland Indians," and I went "Noooooo!" (laughter) I should have been thrilled, and I was, but back then I wanted the Giants or the Dodgers, something like that.

JL: You were a California kid, right?

DE: Yeah, and I'd heard one of those teams was going to draft me, but then they didn't, and instead it was the Indians, so I was a little disappointed, but I was still thrilled, and ultimately, it was the greatest thing that ever could have happened to me, because it was a quicker way to the big leagues. It only took me a couple years to get there.

JL: When you got there in 1975, you started off with a few relief appearances, didn't give up any runs, and then in your first start, you pitch a shutout. That must have been quite an experience.

DE: It was incredible, because it was against the Oakland A's, and at the time they had won the whole thing in '72, '73, '74, so they were the real deal. Isn't that weird, how the game has changed so much? I'd been in the bullpen for about six weeks and had only thrown about 14 or 15 innings, and I'd never thrown more than maybe 30 pitches, and then they start me against the A's and I go nine! Nowadays the manager would have got shot. (laughter)

JL: What other memories stand out from your years with the Indians?

DE: I remember Frank Robinson, because he was such a great guy, and a Hall of Famer. He was the one who brought me to the big leagues, and a lot of my early memories are with him. Then in '77 I threw a no-hitter, and that was a big deal, and I went to an All-Star Game for the first time.

JL: You mentioned Frank Robinson. You were with the Indians for the three years he was the team's manager. He was the first African-American manager in MLB. Was that a big deal to the players on the team, or not something that was given much thought?

DE: I didn't know the impact at the time. I do remember all the attention on Opening Day, when Frank was playing. He was a player/manager and he hit a home run his first time up. The stadium was packed. This was my first time in the big leagues, and I was in the bullpen. I thought, ‘This is great!' Then the next day, there's maybe 5,000 people there.(laughter) It was a great way to break in, and it's a memory I'll never forget.

JL: Is there a relationship with any of the managers you played for that stands out?

DE: There's nothing that's like the relationship I've had with Tony La Russa, which is almost like an older brother type of relationship, and it got so much greater as time went on. Now, after the game, he's a very close friend of mine. When you're playing the game, you want to have that distance, but looking back, it's the closest thing you can have to a friendship between a manager and a player.

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Just days before the start of the 1978 season, Eckersley, 23 years old and the team's best pitcher, was traded to Boston for a package of players highlighted by Rick Wise, a veteran starter who gave the Indians two average seasons. Eckersley spent 6.5 years in Boston and then 6.5 with the Cubs.

JL: After three seasons with the Indians, you were traded to Boston in 1978. What was that like for you?

DE: I was upset. I think anybody gets upset. The first time you're traded is really traumatic. Crying and all that, I didn't want to go! It's like being in college, and you don't want to leave all your pals. It was the greatest thing to happen to me at the time too though, going to Boston. They were on the verge. I went from Cleveland to Boston, and it was shockingly different. They were expected to win. We were so close that year, and we should have won it. That was the Bucky Dent year. We won 99 games. It was a hell of an experience.

JL: A couple of your years in Cleveland, you were out of the race pretty early. What does it do to your mindset, or your preparation, to know you're not really a contender?

DE: To me it was life or death every time I pitched. It wasn't about, "Boy, we haven't got a chance to go to the postseason." It was tough enough to get there to begin with and I was just trying to stay alive, you know? It's hard to get people out, man, and it was game to game for me. I wasn't thinking about the big picture.

JL: Later in your career, the Cubs traded you to Oakland, and that's when you transitioned from being a starter to being a reliever. Is that something you knew was going to happen? What was your reaction to the change?

DE: I wasn't thrilled about it at the time, but ultimately the acceptance of going to the bullpen was probably the best thing I ever did. You always feel like you have to think, ‘I'm still a starter, I'm still a starter,' but I did what I was supposed to do, and showed them that I still had something left. Opportunity knocked, the closer thing. Jay Howell got hurt, I jumped in, and I was off to the races.

JL: Your strikeouts really shot up as a reliever. Were you just able to let it rip, knowing you wouldn't be going as many innings?

DE: Oh totally. Physically I was feeling much better too. Not to get deep into it, but that offseason I had gone to rehab, for recovery for alcohol, and I was a new man. When they got me in Oakland, they didn't know what they got, and neither did I. My fastball came back and I started going after people. And only, maybe two innings, are you kidding me?! And I had good control. It just all kicked in. I was hungry, and I was on a mission to prove myself.

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You probably know Eckersley was the pitcher who gave up Kirk Gibson's famous game-winning home run in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. I was 8 years old at the time, and while I'd played t-ball and been an avid baseball card collector, prior to that October I hadn't really watched much baseball. That game is among my first vivid memories of seeing the game on TV.

JL: Is it strange, or frustrating that with a career as great as yours, what so many people remember is you giving up that home run?

DE: No, not really. It's been so long, and it's always there, it never goes away. It's part of history, and I'm a big part of it. And at the time, from where I had come from, at that moment, from where I'd been a couple years previous to that, even being able to be in that situation was something. It wasn't as devastating as people might think. If you can't be grateful for where I was, coming from rehab and all of that... Then the thing that helped take the sting out of it was winning the whole thing the next year against the Giants. I mean, thank God, right?! I saved about 300 games after that home run, so things turned out pretty well.

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Eckersley also talked about how much he still loves the game.

JL: What's the All-Star break like for you now, and are there particular players you especially enjoy watching?

DE: It's a happening. It's celebrating baseball all week, and the pressure's off, since I'm not playing. It's like a small Hall of Fame experience. The player I'm most excited about is Mike Trout. That guy is the man. That's the guy I like to watch play, as a fan. He's incredible, the balls that he gets to, and he hits the ball so hard, and he can run. He's the whole package. He's a guy I'd pay to see play. Of course, I don't have to pay! (laughter)

JL: What are your memories of going back to Cleveland, as a visitor, or after you retired?

DE: My wife now is a girl from Cleveland, and every year I go back and have a golf tournament for charity. It's coming up in a couple weeks in fact*. Every time I'm back there, everybody always comes up to me and they say something about how I gave up a home run to Manny Ramirez. I'm waiting for a Kirk Gibson, and they're dropping a Manny Ramirez on me!

JL: After bringing the Gibson home run up, I wasn't going to remind you about Manny, but I certainly remember that one!

DE: Ha! That one didn't hurt at all.

JL: Dennis, thanks for taking the time to talk with me, it's been great.

DE: Yeah, it's been a blast.

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*The golf tournament Eckersley mentioned is a fundraiser for the Ed Keating Center, a rehabilitation facility in Cleveland. You can learn more about the organization and the event at their website,