For Dennis Eckersley, baseball was a 24-year odyssey of fear and pain. He fed off the fear of falling short. And he absorbed the pain of every failure, great or small, personal or professional.
Which is why he wanted to annihilate Paul Molitor the last time they faced each other on a baseball field. It was Aug. 22, 1998, and the Red Sox were leading the Twins, 4-3, with two outs in the bottom of the ninth at the Metrodome. The Twins had runners at second and third, with Molitor facing Eckersley.
The end was near for both stars, who yesterday vividly recalled the encounter as they prepared to enter a new frontier as this year's electees to the Hall of Fame. They will be inducted in Cooperstown July 25.
Molitor, who was 42 and would amass 3,319 career hits as one of the most prolific batters of all time, stunned Eckersley, then 43, in their last competitive duel by bunting for a game-winning single. They each were about five weeks away from retirement, their Cooperstown credentials all but complete.
"I remember him swearing at me as I walked off the field," Molitor said. "He's probably still mad about it."
"I was 43 years old, they were 25 games out of first place, and he drops down a bunt," Eckersley said. "He's a little weasel is what he is."
More than five years after the episode, Molitor was back at the Metrodome and Eckersley was at Fenway Park, each praising the other for careers that ultimately set them apart from the 30 other distinguished players on the ballot. Molitor and Eckersley were elected in their first year of eligibility, with Eckersley becoming the first pitcher who was primarily a reliever to be elected in his first try.
"I'm on a cloud, man," Eckersley said in the .406 Club at Fenway, where he had announced his retirement five years earlier. "I'm telling you, it's the greatest moment of my life. Incredible."
Molitor received votes from 431, or 85.18 percent, of the 506 members of the Baseball Writers Association of America who participated in the election, surpassing the 75 percent threshold to be inducted in the Hall. Eckersley appeared on 421, or 83.20 percent, of the ballots, joining Hoyt Wilhelm (1985) and Rollie Fingers (1992) as pitchers honored primarily for their work out of the bullpen.
Molitor and Eckersley became only the 39th and 40th players elected on the first ballot. They finished ahead of Ryne Sandberg, who appeared on 61.07 percent of the ballots, as well as Bruce Sutter (59.49), Jim Rice (54.55), and Andre Dawson (50 percent). It was the 10th year Rice has fallen short. Players cannot appear on the ballot for more than 15 years, though the Veterans Committee can elevate them after their ballot eligibility has been exhausted.
Sutter and two other prominent relievers, Rich Gossage (40.74 percent) and Lee Smith (36.56 percent), may have been as worthy as Eckersley if they all were judged solely on their work out of the pen. But Eckersley, in addition to logging 390 career saves, also flourished as a starting pitcher for more than a decade, pitching a no-hitter among his 100 complete games as he compiled an overall record of 197-171 with a 3.50 ERA.
"There's no doubt in my mind I had a unique career," he said. "I think that's the reason I got in. It's the combination of two careers. There are guys who I feel for right now, like Sutter, Gossage, and Smith, who had great careers as a reliever. I don't think I would have gotten in just on what I had done in the bullpen."
Eckersley, 49, whose anxiety over the voting had robbed him of sleep much of the last week, received the news at 1:10 p.m. "I was so overwhelmed," Eckersley said. "I don't know what to tell you. I'm like a little kid."
The first call he placed was to his parents, Wally and Bernice, in Fremont, Calif., where he was raised. His father, 73, is battling emphysema.
"More than anything, I think about my dad," Eckersley said with tears in his eyes. "This day is for them. When I talk to them and see their emotions, it does wonders for me."
Eckersley also did wonders for himself after his career began to tailspin with the Sox in the early '80s. After going 20-8 in 1978 and 17-10 in 1979, he declined amid a burgeoning drinking problem, prompting the Sox to trade him to the Cubs for Bill Buckner in 1984. After two more subpar years in Chicago, he spent a month in a rehab clinic in early 1987, just before he was dealt to the A's and began his sensational run as a closer.
"I can't deny what happened to me in my life," he said. "Today, I'm glad I'm sober. Nothing could have happened without that. I got a second chance, and I made the most of it."
He helped lead the A's to three straight World Series from 1988-90 and won both the Cy Young Award and Most Valuable Player in 1992, when he went 7-1 with a 1.91 ERA and 51 saves in 54 tries.
While he battled his personal demons, he also fought the fear of falling short. As cocky as he often appeared on the mound, he said it masked "paranoia."
"I used fear for the good," he said. "Sometimes what gets you through paranoia is to be real aggressive. I used to go after people." Eckersley has never visited Cooperstown, fearing it would jinx his chances of enshrinement. And he is comfortable letting the Hall decide which cap will appear on his bronze plaque, though he clearly would prefer entering as a member of the A's. Sox principal owner John W. Henry also told him in a congratulatory call not to feel any pressure to appear in a Sox cap. Henry understood Eckersley's feelings.
"I'd sure like Oakland," Eckersley said. "I grew up in Oakland, I'm from Oakland, and some of my greatest moments of my life happened in Oakland."
. . .
Both Eckersley and Molitor expressed a measure of displeasure with the timing of Pete Rose's decision to admit he bet on baseball. Rose's story made him the focus of much of the media's attention on a day historically dedicated to the Hall of Fame electees. "It's too bad about the timing of all this," Eckersley said. "But it doesn't matter to me. It doesn't take anything away from me. I'm thrilled." . . . The Dodgers formally denied the Sox permission to interview Terry Collins for their third base coach job. Collins spent the last two years as LA's minor league field coordinator.