he Eck recalls how he learned his days as a starting pitcher were officially history.
''They traded for Bob Welch and got rid of Jay Howell,'' explains Dennis Eckersley. ''That's when I knew I'd be in the pen full time.''
The year was 1988, and Oakland A's manager Tony La Russa was about to rewrite the basic rules of relief, utilizing The Eck in a restricted closer's role that has become the SOP of baseball, at least until the Red Sox can demonstrate during the coming season there is another viable way to proceed. But there is no doubt where the idea of a strict one-inning, only-pitch-when-ahead-and-only-in-a-save-situation use of a so-called ''closer'' (a very modern term, by the way) began. It began in Oakland with Dennis Eckersley, and 15 years later he has no complaints. By this time next year he will be in the Hall of Fame (most likely joined by Paul Molitor), and that was not exactly his career path when the 1988 season began.
''It was a hell of an idea, and I was the lucky recipient,'' says The Eck. ''I was 32. Starting was getting to be difficult. I couldn't go six or seven innings, wade through all those lefthanders any more. But just pitching one inning, my fastball came back. I was throwing like I was 25 again. One inning suited me very well. I never would have lasted if I had to pitch two or three innings all the time. Plus, I would have had my [use your imagination] knocked off.''
To hear The Eck tell it, he had the easiest job in baseball. ''A lot of the tough stuff was done before I got there, back in the seventh and eighth. Rick Honeycutt got the tough lefties out. The ninth inning was a platter job. Nice and clean.''
Then again, to hear The Eck tell it, he had the nightmare job of all time. ''It's all on you,'' he points out. They just say, `Go get `em, pal.' If you blew one, people would say, `Well, he'll just turn the page.' [Expletive]! When I blew one, I came back and didn't sleep for [expletive]. I'd have to go back, turn on ESPN, and see the bomb that beat me all over again. I couldn't wait to get back out there to redeem myself. People would say, `He's a great reliever, because he can forget about it.' You kidding me? I just didn't tell anybody how I felt.''
In his Oakland prime, apologies were seldom needed. The Eck saved as many as 51 games in a season, and he had an ERA as low as 0.61. He was credited with 304 saves in eight seasons, the last seven of which were as La Russa's one-inning specialist.
The biggest concern when he made the conversion was the obvious need to bring the A material from the first pitch. ''When I started, my first inning usually stunk,'' he admits. ''As a reliever, I had to get into it. I had to just let it fly. But, as I said, my fastball came back, I got lucky. My arm responded.''
Eckersley stresses that no one operates in a vacuum. ''The manager must have faith in you, and he has to be operating freely,'' he declares. ''La Russa never had to worry about his job. You could be some other place where the manager was on shaky ground and if things went bad you'd have to worry he'd start bailing on you. And you need other guys to do their jobs before you.''
The Eck was an absolute delight to watch. He strutted in and began throwing strikes. In one three-year stretch he walked 16 men in 206 innings. A 15-pitch inning was a rarity. ''Boom, boom, boom. eight-pitch, 10-pitch, 12-pitch innings,'' he says. ''You got it.''
It was an amazing career transformation for a 32-year-old washed-up starter, and he knows he owes it all to one man. ''Tony made me,'' Eckersley acknowledges. `He saved me.''
Tony saved The Eck and The Eck saved his starters. (''The year Bob Welch won 27, I saved 19 of `em.'') For better or worse, baseball has really never been the same.