Nine Innings: Fear motivated Dennis Eckersley

Dennis Eckersley (Elise Amendola/AP)

Nine Innings is a series of questions with players & personnel from around Major League Baseball. In this edition, Shi Davidi talks to Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley about closing games at the big league level.

The feeling of closing out a game is still vivid for Dennis Eckersley.

“Total rush – that’s why I was so demonstrative,” says the Hall of Famer turned NESN studio analyst. “People got pissed off at me, but that was a total release. If you felt like I did and you punched out the last guy – YES, let’s get the hell out of here! That would only last for a couple of hours and the next day you grind again, because if you don’t do the job, you’ve got to watch it over and over again on ESPN when you get home or to the hotel. But that’s the thing I talk about missing, is that rush. It’s like doing live TV, it’s like whew, you’re alive, but it’s a different kind of alive when everybody is counting on you and you’re expected to close games out. That’s totally different than doing this TV stuff.”

Eckersley’s words are worth noting for those who argue the ninth inning is just like any other inning. The one-time 20-game winner for the Boston Red Sox turned untouchable lockdown man for the Oakland Athletics saved 390 games in his second life as a reliever, collecting Cy Young and MVP honours in 1992.

Given all that success, the inner turmoil he fought while on the mound is somewhat surprising. The Eck described that and more in his Nine Innings with us:

1st inning – If you look around the game, there’s a lot of turnover among closers. Why do you think there’s so little longevity in the role?

“It’s hard for me because I was managed so well, do you know what I mean? Especially because I wasn’t so young when I started it. I had a guy who managed me well and hung with me, too. This day and age, you blow four out of five, or you don’t have success in a month, and it’s like, ‘Whoa, we’ve got to change lanes.’ So you’ve got to be in the right situation. I was lucky. And it’s hard to have that kind of pressure for a number of years. You can only name a handful of guys. I don’t know, I’m not quite sure.”

2nd inning – Beyond the obvious physical toll, what other are the other burdens in the closer’s role for a pitcher?

“To me – if you’re handled right the physical part helps – it’s mental. I had a hard time with it. They talk about turning the page and stuff like that, I never could. You fake it, and I think it wears on you mentally, it just does.”

3rd inning – You had a lot of success as a starter before becoming a reliever. Why was turning the page as a closer so much harder?

“You liked it that as a reliever you get a chance to go right back out there, five days as a starter meant you had to sit on it. But the fire gets hot man, you blow a couple of saves in a row, whew, it gets hotter. I was just emotional, and I’m just being honest, I played with that fear all the time. I was uptight all the time, you may not have known it, but I was. I played like I was a tough guy, body language and (stuff). Inside I was grinding. There’s pressure.”

4th inning – What was your process for getting ready in games when it looked like there would be a save opportunity?

“I felt like it was coming to me in the fifth inning. I’m smelling it because I wouldn’t go out (to the bullpen) until I had to, like the seventh inning. I’m feeling it because I felt like every game was going to come to me. You sort of take it on. Sometimes I’d never even pitch and I was like exhausted because I was thinking it was coming to me – every day. And my mentality was aggressive. Even though I didn’t throw 95 at that age, I acted like I had 95, so I was really an aggressive type of pitcher.”

5th inning – What did you do in-season to try and manage the stress, because over 162 games that must have been draining?

“Now that I look back, that was the worst part. It’s hard to manage that stress. I was care-free and a free spirit when I was young, but the next thing you know, they give me this job when I’m 32 and I lasted about (11) years but it was stressful. I couldn’t tell you how I managed it. I used to run every day, I mean I’d run like four miles, I ran like crazy because it almost helped calm me down. I had to pick my spots because it got hot in the summer but I would run like a madman, I was in shape to go nine (innings), but it was a mental thing. I figured I ran four miles, I deserve to get these guys out.”

6th inning – What were your off-seasons like?

“I was Wally workout. I was so lucky to be where I was, how my career went. It kind of evaporated because I was losing it (as a starter) and then bang, got on top again. I felt so lucky that I was never going to let up. That’s how it was, for me.”

7th inning – What was the biggest difference in the physical grind in converting from starter to reliever?

“It wasn’t too tough physically. It could be. The toughest part is if you go out there to get a save and throw 25 (pitches). I could go out there every day and throw 10, 12 pitches, I’ve seen (Koji) Uehara do that all day long. Remember a couple of years ago? He was ridiculous. He never got tired. It’s that 25 pitch, get in trouble outing. Then the season winds on, the next thing you know, you go to get up and it’s not there, he’s calling your name, you haven’t really got it and I’ve got to act like I got it. That’s the game.”

8th inning – Did you have the same emotion and theatrics as a starter?

“I did when I was young, because I had gas. And I was crazy. It was emotional, because I was immature when I got here, I was only 20. You hide behind the fear. It’s a facade but it helps. You act like you’re confident as hell, they call you cocky, but meanwhile behind the curtain you’re scared to death and you’re trying to get by.”

9th inning – Did you ever confide in teammates about your fears?

“It was just in there, I didn’t tell anybody – that would blow the whole cover! Teammates thought I was a bad dude. But when I talk about fear later on in my career, that fear of failure is a major motivator. It crushes some guys, but for me it motivated me.”

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