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Sports Media

Eckersley's delivery a real hit

By Chad Finn
Globe Staff / June 26, 2009
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Dennis Eckersley would understand if you don’t enjoy his work.

“If my team had changed announcers for any reason, I’d be yelling at the TV, ‘Get this guy out of here! Who is this clown?’ ’’ said Eckersley, who has filled in for Jerry Remy on NESN’s Red Sox telecasts since early May as the longtime color analyst recuperates from the effects of cancer surgery.

“Trying to fill Jerry’s shoes, I mean, that’s a challenge,’’ said Eckersley, a teammate of Remy’s on the Red Sox from 1978-84. “He’s an icon around here. He’s beloved.

“It’s not just any job to try to fill the shoes of a guy like Jerry, who’s just so good at this job. There’s definitely pressure, I can tell you that.’’

But Eckersley has handled the pressure with the same aplomb he demonstrated during the second half of his 24-year major league career, when he reinvented himself as one of the finest closers of all time en route to the Hall of Fame. As his comfort level has grown during his seven weeks since sliding over from his usual gig as a studio analyst, the better he has become. With his energy, candor, self-effacing humor, and easy rapport with play-by-play voice Don Orsillo, he has been a revelation.

He hasn’t replaced Remy in the hearts of Red Sox fans, and partially out of deference to the man whose spot he is filling, Eckersley laughs off the suggestion that a three-man booth would be a treat for NESN viewers. But he has earned his own legion of admirers, and it’s hard to imagine that anyone who appreciates insightful baseball analysis wouldn’t enjoy the perspective the 54-year-old Eckersley brings.

Having endured his share of valleys during his playing career, he can relate to successes and hardships on the field. His I’ve-been-in-his-spikes monologue as 20-year-old Detroit pitcher Rick Porcello melted down against the Sox earlier this season was downright compelling.

Yet he also has an uncanny knack for echoing a fan’s feelings as a moment unfolds. On more than one occasion, with barely contained exasperation, he has implored the maddening Daisuke Matsuzaka to pitch aggressively.

“When I was in the studio talking about whatever big thing happened in the game, I always tried to have the same reaction as if it just happened,’’ said Eckersley. “I gave my honest feelings. I don’t sugar-coat it. But when I’m in the booth, it really is instant, you know? It’s right there in front of you, and you’re getting my immediate reaction.

“Sometimes that leads to mistakes - and I’ve made them,’’ laughed Eckersley, whose four-letter slip of the tongue earlier this season might have briefly elevated NESN’s telecast to a PG-13 rating.

Accidental expletives aside, sometimes Eckersley does fall into a lingo all his own, most often by repeatedly referring to a fastball as “cheese.’’ But that’s the thing - it is all his own, and if it’s shtick, it’s the same shtick he’s used since he arrived in the major leagues in 1975 as a cocky 20-year-old fireballer for the Cleveland Indians.

This is, after all, the man who coined the term “walk-off’’ for a game-ending homer, someone who was paid homage by Peter Gammons in the 1986 classic “Beyond the Sixth Game’’ with a glossary of “Dial-Eck.’’

It is not an act, his own one-man show.

“I’m just who I am,’’ he said.

It took Eckersley some time to find out who he wanted to be after his playing career ended. In a way, he is an accidental analyst. He has been with NESN in the studio role since 2003, but his broadcasting career actually began shortly after his retirement from baseball following the 1998 season. He filled in on Oakland A’s telecasts when another broadcaster was called to NBA playoff duty, but even then, Eckersley wasn’t sure a new life behind the microphone was for him.

“I wasn’t ready,’’ Eckersley said. “I had to get over quitting.’’

Eleven years removed from his last major league pitch, he says he genuinely enjoys the broadcasting life now, and that applies to his color analyst work.

“Early on it was difficult,’’ he said. “But the more I’ve done it, the more I’ve liked it. Live television, with a microphone in front of me, that’s the about the closest thing to the feel I got from pitching.’’

And his profile in his second career is growing. Eckersley will contribute to TBS’s coverage of the All-Star Game in a few weeks.

Eckersley has worked almost exclusively home games during Remy’s leave of absence, with ex-Sox outfielder Dave Roberts handling the brunt of the road trips. But Eckersley was in the booth for a series in Detroit at the beginning of June (he was already in the Midwest for a previous commitment for TBS) and he will travel to Baltimore for a three-game series starting Monday since Roberts is unavailable.

Eckersley, who said NESN has given him no timeline for when Remy might return, said the perception that he is averse to going on the road is inaccurate.

“A full season, 162 games, that’s a load,’’ Eckersley said, emphasizing the last word. “It’s just not for everyone. But sure, I’d definitely consider going on more road trips.

“I mean, it’s the Red Sox. I’m getting paid to watch them and talk about them. Who’s going to complain about that?’’

Certainly not anyone who has heard him lately.

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