The boy meant no harm. He was too young to know any better. Otherwise, he never would have stood before Dennis Eckersley during a clinic at Fenway Park earlier this month for children from the Home for Little Wanderers, the South End Little League, and the Brighton YMCA and asked in all his youthful bluntness how Eckersley's playing days had ended.
"Did you quit?" the boy inquired.
The fact is, Eckersley could have walked away many times during 24 years of personal strife and professional tumult in one of baseball's most remarkable pitching careers. He could have fled amid the anguish of his first wife, Denise, abruptly leaving him with their 2-year-old daughter in 1978 for Rick Manning, a close friend and teammate. He could have surrendered time and again to alcoholism, which plagued him until he was so repulsed in 1986 by watching a home video of himself drunk that he sought treatment. Or he could have buckled under the ordeal of trying to spare his older brother, Glenn, from a 40-year prison term in 1987 for second-degree kidnapping and second-degree attempted murder.
Oh, and the baseball landscape is littered with pitchers who succumbed to lesser failures than Eckersley experienced on the mound. He went from losing effectiveness as a starting pitcher to surrendering one of the most memorable home runs in World Series history.
But in a celebration of one of the most indelible triumphs of perseverance over myriad traumas in modern sports, Eckersley today will be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, his bronzed likeness installed among those of the game's greatest legends. A first-ballot electee, he will be cited for his achievements with the Indians, Red Sox, Cubs, A's, and Cardinals, hailed as a face of the American dream, and not once described as a quitter.
"The things I remember the most are the failures," Eckserley told the children at Fenway Park. "But I'm proud to have overcome all of that."
Fear of failure The risk of exploring Eckersley's turbulent career is allowing all he endured to overshadow all he accomplished. While appearing in more games (1,071) in major league history than all but two pitchers -- Jesse Orosco (1,252) and John Franco (1,079) -- the flamboyant righthander hurled a no-hitter for the Indians in 1977, won a World Series with the A's in 1989, captured the Most Valuable Player and Cy Young awards in '92, and ultimately achieved a milestone that may never be matched as he became the only pitcher to throw 100 complete games and post at least 200 saves. He saved 390 games, third most in history behind Lee Smith (478) and Franco (424).
"I'll say it until I'm dead, he was a master, as good as anybody I've ever seen," said Johnny Pesky, who has studied pitchers for more than 60 years as a player, manager, coach, broadcaster, and consultant for the Sox. "I'd pay a hundred dollars to watch him pitch."
Renowned for his dashing looks and bravado (he later confided his brashness masked his fear of failure), Eckersley made pitching look easy after he and his brother parted ways in 1972, with Dennis leaving their home in Fremont, Calif., at 17 to sign as a third-round draft choice with the Indians and Glenn, then 19, lurching toward a hobo's life of booze and hopelessness.
At 20, Eckersley burst into the big leagues by pitching a three-hit shutout against the A's on his way to becoming the American League Rookie Pitcher of the Year in 1975. He no-hit the Angels less than two years later, capping the masterwork with his signature swagger as he shouted at Anaheim's slow-paced Gil Flores to step into the batter's box with two outs in the ninth inning.
"One more out," Eckersley wailed, "and you're it."
Afterward, Eckersley proudly told reporters his wife, Denise, had witnessed his milestone performance.
"I bet she's going crazy right now," he said.
Denise was Eckersley's high school sweetheart. They married when he was 18 and their daughter, Mandee, was born when he was 21. But when Eckersley called home the day after the Indians traded him to the Sox before the 1978 season, Denise told him she wanted out. Soon, he learned why. She had fallen in love with Manning, whom she later married.
At 23, Eckersley arrived in Boston heartbroken.
Overcoming adversity "He was so down," said Luis Tiant, who pitched for the Sox with Eckersley. "It made me feel so bad, watching him. He was in a tough position. We tried to calm him down, tell him he had a life to live, make him believe that maybe what happened was for his own good."
It was no easy sell, though the episode provided the first compelling evidence of Eckersley's resiliency. Despite his crushing personal loss, Eckersley went 20-8 with a 2.99 ERA and helped the Sox force their historic one-game playoff with the Yankees for the AL East title. He persevered with help from a new friend, Jackson Browne, whose music and personal experience (Browne's wife had committed suicide) "spoke" to him.
"I take pride in overcoming what I did that year because I was hurting," Eckersley said. "My [life] was yanked from me. God, it was horrible. But I took it to the mound. Somebody was going to pay."
Even as Eckersley developed a reputation as a hard-partying bachelor, he shined again for the Sox in '79, going 17-10 with a 2.99 ERA. He also met his second wife, Nancy O'Neil, while hanging out with teammates Mike Torrez and Bill Lee at Daisy Buchanan's on Newbury Street. O'Neil, an aspiring actress and model, was moonlighting as a waitress while attending Boston College. They married in 1980.
"It seemed to help him when he married that local girl," said Pesky, who served as a coach for the Sox under Don Zimmer during Eckersley's early years in Boston.
But Eckersley developed back woes in 1980, and as his drinking problems intensified, his performance declined until he bottomed out in 1983, going 9-13 with a 5.61 ERA.
"I should have gone on the DL," he said "But I took the ball, and I was horrible. That was one of the worst years of my life."
Getting an awakening His mediocrity prompted the Sox to trade him to the Cubs before the '84 season for Bill Buckner, a move that reduced Eckersley to tears. But soon he faced a greater challenge. Less than three months after Buckner's fateful error in Game 6 of the '86 World Series, Eckersley was visiting Mandee, then 10, during the Christmas holidays when his sister-in-law videotaped his drunken interaction with his daughter and replayed the tape for him the next day.
The experience was "an awakening" for Eckersley. He no longer could live with himself, and within days checked into a six-week rehab program in Newport, R.I.
"It got away from me for a lot longer than I want to admit," he said of his alcoholism. "I was in denial for a long, long time. You have to be desperate before you do anything."
Newly sober, Eckersley encountered another obstacle when the Cubs traded him to the A's before the '87 season and Oakland manager Tony La Russa stuck him in the bullpen. He was 32 and starting over, learning a new craft after going 149-130 with a 3.71 ERA over 12 seasons as a starter.
By August, A's closer Jay Howell was on the disabled list, and Eckersley's second career was born. So began one of the most memorable runs of brilliance by a relief pitcher in baseball history as he saved 320 games over nine seasons for the A's, whose cap will appear on his bronze plaque in Cooperstown.
"My career was really on the down side when I got to Oakland," Eckersley said. "But I guess it was all meant to be because I was at the right time in my life to accept a demotion. I made the most of it and ended up with probably the fondest, dream-like memories of my life in that span of time. It was magical."
Sure, there were searing failures, like surrendering a two-out, two-strike walkoff homer to Kirk Gibson in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 1 of the '88 World Series against the Dodgers. He also yielded a two-out tying homer to Roberto Alomar in the ninth inning of a jarring loss to the Blue Jays in the '92 AL Championship Series.
But Eckersley established himself as one of the game's most dominant double threats as a starter and reliever. And he reached the top despite thriving more on fearing failure than burning to succeed.
"He was one of the few athletes I knew who admitted publicly that he was running from fear, not toward success," said Orel Hershiser, who dominated the '88 Series for the Dodgers and now serves as pitching coach for the Rangers. "A lot of athletes are longing for success, but I'm finding more and more that there are more athletes who perform very well by running from fear."
A brother's pain Though Eckersley endured a hearty share of fear and professional failure, little pained him more during his heyday with the A's than his brother's crime.
Glenn shared a tiny bedroom with Eckersley growing up. He introduced his younger brother to booze when Eckersley was 13, and Eckersley later grew keenly aware of how deeply Glenn had spiraled into alcoholism because Glenn often showed up unannounced in Eckersley's life, as he did in Milwaukee in 1987. "He had a Charles Manson look," Eckersley testified later in court.
Less than a month after the Milwaukee encounter, Glenn and a fellow drifter, Daniel Immel, were charged with abducting, choking, and stabbing a 60-year-old woman and leaving her for dead in a field near Pueblo, Colo. The victim said Glenn drove her car while Immel choked her. She said Glenn provided the knife that Immel used to stab her and helped to drag and dump her in the field. According to published reports, she said Glenn also spurned her request for freedom.
"We can't let you go, can we?" she testified Glenn responded.
Despite a dramatic courtroom appearance by Eckersley, who testified about the depths of Glenn's alcoholism and the disease's harsh toll on several generations of his family, a jury rejected Glenn's defense of involuntary intoxication. He was sentenced to 48 years in prison (the term later was reduced to 40 years).
By the time of Glenn's conviction in 1989, Eckersley already had been sober more than two years, as he has been to this day. In hindsight, he said, he may have postponed seeking treatment in part because of his brother.
"Sometimes I think I didn't get help a long, long time ago because I said to myself, `I'm not as bad as him,' " Eckersley said. "But just because you're not that bad doesn't mean you're not bad. You're looking for anything, man, when you're in denial."
Eckersley lost touch with Glenn for a while after he entered prison.
"It was almost too painful when somebody you know is looking at time like that," he said.
While Glenn languished behind bars, Eckersley approached his final baseball challenge, confronting the end of his career. With his glory days in Oakland behind him, Eckersley spent two seasons with the Cardinals before he returned to Boston for his last hurrah in 1998 at age 43.
"I should have never come back," he said. "I was trying to be better than I was. I was trying to throw gas and I had none."
Plus, he felt the game passing him by. He had no taste for the rap music in the clubhouse and little interest in socializing with players who were in diapers when he broke into the majors. Still, he forged ahead until the Sox declined to offer him arbitration after the season, effectively ending his career.
Retirement transition The transition was harder than Eckersley imagined. He shed a few tears in announcing his retirement at Fenway Park and "cried like a baby" two months later at the annual Hyde Park Lions Club dinner in West Roxbury. But then came the hardest part as his marriage to Nancy crumbled.
"It took me a couple of years just to regroup, to be honest," Eckersley said. "My personal life was kind of [messed] up."
He said he had been "so obsessed" with playing baseball that he may not have focused enough on his marriage to sustain it after his career. The couple have two children, Jake, 14, and Allie, 7.
"I just didn't communicate," he said, "and when you don't communicate, it's over."
Eckersley has since entered a relationship with Jennifer Szoke, a public policy specialist, though he and Nancy have yet to divorce as they cope with medical issues involving their children.
Eckersley also has found an outlet for his passion for baseball by launching a new career as a Sox commentator for the New England Sports Network.
"Nothing can replace [playing], but being on TV is kind of a reenactment," Eckersley said. "That's why I like it. You're alive."
He also has renewed contact with his brother, readily answering the phone even when the caller ID reads, "Inmate." Eckersley has begun lobbying for his brother's eventual parole and had written numerous letters to Colorado corrections officials, though he declined Glenn's request to deliver a note to President Bush. He also plans to attend Glenn's parole hearing in December.
"He's got a great attitude, he's changed," Eckersley said. "Who am I to say, but I think he's done enough time."
Eckersley plans to ask Colorado officials to ultimately permit him to take responsibility for his brother.
"I'll be there to say if they need somebody to know he's going to be OK when he gets out, then I'll be that guy," Eckersley said. "Maybe I wasn't going to be that guy six or seven years ago, but now I'm in the right place where I can do that."
At his home in a suburb west of Boston, Eckersley remains close to his children, including Mandee, 28, who lives in Somerville and works for a publishing firm in Boston. His parents, Wallace and Bernice, still live in the California home where he grew up, but they will join him in Cooperstown, thanks partly to the Hall of Fame, which arranged for transportation for his 73-year-old father, who suffers from ephysema and requires an oxygen tank to help him breathe.
Since Eckersley was elected to the Hall in January, he twice has visited the White House and mingled with the president. He declined a request from Senator John F. Kerry's campaign to serve as a "closer" during the Democratic primary in Iowa, though he did make an appearance for Senator Edward M. Kennedy in his bid for the Democratic nomination in 1980. And he has dedicated much of his time to crafting the speech he will deliver today in Cooperstown, reflecting on his tumultuous journey from childhood obscurity to baseball immortality.
"It's really something," Eckersley said. "It makes you wonder, what happened? How did I get here?"
For one thing, he never quit.