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Road to recovery first

Eckersley reflects on personal battle

By Bob Hohler
Globe Staff / January 8, 2004

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NEW YORK -- This was the next stop on Dennis Eckersley's glory ride, another turn in the Hall of Fame winner's circle, this time before the bright lights of the national media in the Waldorf Astoria. Soon, he would ease into a limousine and spin over to Broadway, where David Letterman was waiting for him to read last night's Top 10 List to an audience of millions.

Eckersley had reached the zenith of his professional life, fulfilling a dream he had not yet begun to fathom when he first tried to emulate the great Juan Marichal's leg kick.

Yet the celebration was tinged with sadness. Not a day goes by that Eckersley fails to remember how much alcohol nearly destroyed all he worked for, and it struck him even harder yesterday as he considered both Vin Baker's relapse with alcohol and the latest fallout from Pete Rose's purported addiction to gambling.

"Oh, God, that's awful," Eckersley said of Baker's predicament. "I just feel for him because it's so public. It's tough enough to be private in your recovery, let alone be in public. I feel for him, because they made such a big deal out of it."

Eckersley handled his recovery privately. After establishing himself as a regular on the party circuit in Boston in the early 1980s, he slipped deeper into alcohol abuse in his three seasons with the Cubs from 1984-86.

"It got away from me for a lot longer than I want to admit," he said. "I was in denial for a long, long time. You have to be desperate before you do anything."

He hit bottom in the winter of '86, spent 30 days in a rehab clinic, and has not had a drink since.

"I've dealt with it daily," he said. "You have to stay on top of it. It doesn't go away, especially being in that bubble like [Baker] is. Once you say it and it's out in the open like that, it's for the whole world to see. It's not an easy road."

Eckersley has relied on a 12-step program to help him stay the course.

"You need to stay close to the program," he said. "Everybody does it differently. People say, `Don't talk about the program,' but that's how I do it, the program. You need somebody to talk to every day."

Unlike Baker, who last year publicly detailed his problems, Eckersley waited months, if not years, before he discussed his struggle.

"That's what ends up happening once you bare your soul," Eckersley said of Baker enduring the public scrutiny. "What happens when you need help again? Guys are afraid to go for help. They say, `Oh, no, they won't forgive me this time,' so it keeps them from getting help again. So maybe this is a good thing for him personally. It doesn't look good before the whole world, but maybe this will get him back in the process."

Eckersley was not surprised to spend a considerable amount of the first 24 hours since his election to Cooperstown talking about alcohol abuse.

"I can't get around it," he said. "I hate to talk about it, but guess what: That's part of my story. It's who I am."

As for Rose, who admitted after 14 years of denials that he bet on baseball while he was managing the Reds, Eckersley wondered why baseball's all-time hits leader let his gambling become such a damaging problem.

"Why didn't he get help?" Eckersley said. "There is help for that [stuff], isn't there? The problem is you have to admit it."

Eckersley generally sidestepped the Rose issue Tuesday in the hours immediately after he was notified of his election to Cooperstown, but he was more forthcoming after further reflection. Rose chose this week to release a book that deals with his gambling history, partly overshadowing news of Eckersley and Paul Molitor being elected to the Hall.

"It really didn't take anything away from it for me, but the timing's not right," Eckersley said. "It's not real classy. Maybe that's just Pete Rose."

While Eckersley stood by his position that Rose belongs in the Hall of Fame, he was underwhelmed by Rose's latest admission.

"The only thing I can say is, it's a little late to admit something like that," he said. "It takes away from the forgiveness sometimes when somebody waits so long."

Considering the circus atmosphere created by the latest twist in the Rose story, Eckersley said, "I'm just glad I'm not going in [to the Hall] with the guy, to be completely honest."

Beyond the Letterman show, Eckersley was beginning to consider the speech he will deliver at Cooperstown.

"It scares the [expletive] out of me," he said. "I just hope I get through the thing."

Eckersley and his partner, Jennifer Szoke, planned to return today to their home outside Boston, where he will continue to savor the greatest personal and professional achievements of his life: sobriety and a place in the Hall.

"All they do is reinforce how grateful I am," he said. "To be sober, you have to be grateful. It's the ultimate motivation."

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