Embracing Fear: How Dennis Eckersley Beat the Bottle and Rode His Rebound into Cooperstown

Looking for Courage in All the Wrong Places

The path to greatness doesn’t normally include a stop at rock bottom. Then again, no two journeys are the same and nobody ever accused Dennis Eckersley of being normal.

He threw a no-hitter at age 22 and won 20 games at age 23. At age 31 he found himself in rehab and facing an uncertain future. Traded to the Oakland A’s for fringe minor-leaguers, he took a leap of faith and reinvented himself—with help from those who believed in him—as one of baseball’s most dominant closers, using his fear of failure as motivation for a Hall of Fame career.

But was it fear itself that propelled Eckersley to such great heights? Or was it his willingness and ability to overcome that fear? As Dr. Lissa Rankin notes in The Fear Cure, “Courage is not about being fearless; it’s about letting fear transform you so you come into right relationship with uncertainty, make peace with impermanence, and wake up to who you really are.”

Fear evolved in humans (and other animals) to protect them from threats to their survival. Did Eckersley’s fear allow him to survive and evolve into one of baseball’s great closers? He believed so, telling Peter Gammons in 1988 that “I get fired by fear. I’m scared of failure every time I go out there.”

This was a bold admission for any adult American male to make, let alone one at the top of a hypercompetitive, hypermasculine profession. But if we view Eckersley’s words through the lens of Rankin’s definition, they can be seen as a sign not of weakness but of great strength.

Once you’ve identified your enemy (fear), you can devise strategies to overcome it. Childhood friend Jeff Pimental has said that Eckersley “spent the early part of his career running from fear and the later part of his career attacking fear.”

Was this the most direct path to greatness? Was it the one he had envisioned for himself? Probably not, but as they say, life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.

Falling Down, Growing Up

A third-round pick of the Cleveland Indians in 1972, Eckersley first arrived in the big leagues three years later, winning 13 games at age 20. Two years later he tossed a no-hitter and made his first All-Star team. The year after that he was traded to the Boston Red Sox, where he won 20 games despite off-field problems. Specifically, his wife Denise left him just after the trade. Turns out she’d been in a relationship with Rick Manning, who played center field for the Indians.

While Eckersley’s personal world fell into a state of disrepair, his professional world held together—at least for a while. He enjoyed two more strong seasons before slipping in 1980. Despite his drop in effectiveness, he remained a fixture in Boston’s rotation until May 1984, when he was shipped to the Chicago Cubs.

After two good seasons with the Cubs and one bad one, Eckersley’s career stood at a crossroads. Although he’d experienced success, his last hint of greatness had come in 1979, seven years earlier. Now, at age 31, his career was in jeopardy.

More than that, his life was in jeopardy. After the 1986 season Eckersley headed to rehab for alcoholism, a problem that had been affecting him for a long time but which he was understandably unwilling to admit given his environment. Practicing a profession that encouraged drinking and discouraged displays of vulnerability in an era that didn’t always understand addiction or offer sufficient resources for overcoming it couldn’t have been easy.

Eckersley could have felt sorry for himself and yielded to the fear of an uncertain future. Instead, he chose to view his addiction as the gateway toward something greater and took the necessary steps to get there. Mental toughness and a healthy attitude pushed him forward despite the uncertainty: “I’m lucky my whole life didn’t get torn apart. I could have lost my wife, my career, everything. Instead, I finally started growing up.”

Surely there are better ways to achieve self-awareness than by hitting rock bottom. Still, once you’re there, pulling yourself up beats lingering in the abyss.

Fortunately he had good reason to pull himself up and a strong network to help him, including his second wife Nancy and her family. In December 1986, his 10-year-old daughter, Mandee, saw him drunk for the first time. Nancy’s sister Donna videotaped the incident and forced Eckersley to watch the next morning. That prompted him to check into rehab, which he says “had everything to do with changing my career,” adding that “I put all of my success on getting sober. I began becoming a better person, a better listener and I took better care of myself.”

The lessons he learned from that experience would serve him well in baseball and in life. But first he had to confront long-held fears. As Eckersley told Gammons, “I’d always been afraid of not drinking. I was afraid of life being dull. By spring training, I realized I really looked forward to living, where once I just tried to get by.”

Walking Off the Walk-Off

With a new outlook came a new team—and a new role. The Cubs traded Eckersley to the Oakland A’s in April 1987 for three players who never sniffed the big leagues. Manager Tony LaRussa and pitching coach Dave Duncan temporarily moved him to the bullpen, which Eckersley hated. But as he continued adjusting to sobriety and dealing with other curve balls life threw him (brother Wally was arrested for kidnapping, robbery, and attempted murder in June of that year), he slowly and unexpectedly became one of the best closers baseball had ever seen.

Ironically, perhaps his most famous pitch came in 1988, a backdoor slider to a gimpy Kirk Gibson that turned into a game-winning home run in the first game of the World Series. Eckersley had failed. But he owned his failure, answering reporters’ questions long after the game had ended. More importantly, he didn’t let it define him as a person: “It’s part of me and I accept it. It’s part of history.”

He won the American League Cy Young and MVP awards in 1992, at age 37, and continued to pitch effectively into his forties. After retiring in 1998, Eckersley was voted into the Hall of Fame six years later, in his first year of eligibility. His name appeared on 83 percent of ballots, making him one of only two entrants that year.

From young phenom, to a kid who lost his first wife to his center fielder, to a guy who drank his way into his thirties, to a guy who was given away to a team that stuck him in a role he hated, Eckersley persevered and transformed himself into someone who was pretty great at baseball.

He also ended up being pretty great at life. And for whatever fans may remember—the long flowing black hair and mustache, the whiplike delivery, the fist pumps, the introduction of “walk-off” into baseball’s already colorful lexicon, even the dramatic homer to Gibson—his ascent to diamond dominance pales in comparison to the brazen act of redirecting the fears that once defined him into something more productive so that people much closer than fans will remember him as well.


Geoff Young is Crooked Scoreboard’s fearless baseball editor. You should follow him on Twitter.

Image Credit: Nate Koehler