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Eckersley relieved after ceremony
07/25/2004 9:27 PM ET
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- It was 30 minutes after he had been welcomed into the Hall of Fame, and an hour before his plaque would go up on a museum wall to make the canonization official.

Dennis Eckersley entered the auditorium of the Clark Sports Center, slumped on a folding chair, and put his feelings in fitting terms for someone who had travelled to Cooperstown through bullpen gates.

"I feel relief."

Relief is what he had given the Oakland A's for nine glorious years.

And relief is what getting through Sunday's Induction Ceremony had given Eckersley.

"It was overwhelming. I can't explain it," he said. "I'm not a writer."

He had entered hundreds of games amid suffocating conditions, and seemed unaffected.

As Lon Simmons, the broadcaster who was a fellow honoree Sunday, said, "He'd come into games like D'Artagnan, his hair flying all over the place. And you knew it'd all be right."

However, Sunday intimidated Eckersley. Not because he is shy and uncomfortable speaking in front of thousands. But because he knew he would be emptying his soul.

And he didn't know how he would react to that.

"Pitching ... sometimes I did so poorly, it brought me to tears," he said. "But that was nothing like talking about people who mean so much to you.

"It felt like a eulogy or something. I wanted people I love to know how much I care about them."

If you know anything about the athlete's psyche, you know such expressions do not come easy through the macho facade.

In their speeches, both Eckersley and fellow inductee Paul Molitor tried to heal personal wounds they had opened through their quests for baseball success.

Eckersley also knew he would be shining a lantern into the darkest corner of his closet. At one point, he may as well not have been standing on a Cooperstown podium in front of thousands of people, but in a clinic in front of a dozen strangers.

He could have said, "Hello. My name is Dennis Eckersley, and I'm an alcoholic," and it would've been the same.

"I did practice my speech," Eckersley said. "And I did cry every time. And that's okay. That's a major part of my story."

Actually, it is a major part of the second chapter of his story, making his recovery from alcoholism even more remarkable and commendable.

Midway through their careers, most men have chartered their courses. But if you had suggested midway through Eckersley's that he was Hall of Fame stock, you would have been laughed out of the room.

He had dragged through a 6-11 season as a starter for the Chicago Cubs, and had just been shipped to Oakland for Brian Guinn, Dave Wilder and Mark Leonette.

Sunday, Eckersley sat on that podium and watched a video review of his career, at the end of which he just shook his own head in disbelief.

"I never envisioned standing next to my childhood idols, Juan Marichal and Willie Mays," the Oakland native had said in opening his acceptance speech.

Eckersley was delivered to this point by the wonderful convergence of his sobriety and Tony La Russa.

The A's manager had the equivalent of a shoulder-shrug by way of greeting Eckersley a few days before the 1987 season.

"Go to the 'pen till we figure out what to do with you," La Russa had told him.

Eckersley choked up when discussing his relationships with La Russa and his long-time pitching coach, Dave Duncan.

"I'm here due a large part to these two. Duncan cut out a role for me that was tailor-made for my personality.

"Tony knew me both as an athlete and as a person. He cared for me like a father.

"They developed a platform for me to put up another 12 years, and that was my ticket to Cooperstown. Those were the best years of my life. It was like magic."

On those rare nights when Eckersley did not have his magic, La Russa would watch him stew in the clubhouse, beating himself up over having let down his teammates and his manager.

And before going home, La Russa would slip a piece of paper with a simple message into Eck's locker.

"It'd say, 'You're the best.' Those notes, and Tony's confidence, meant so much to me," Eckersley said.

La Russa and Duncan, still teamed with the St. Louis Cardinals, were preempted by the National League schedule from attending Eckersley's induction.

But Tony is still writing him notes, and now they are a little longer.

"He wrote me a three-page letter," Eckersley said. "It was very moving. It's a letter I'll always cherish. He told me he loved me. In a macho way."

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.