Dennis Eckersley, the professor of lingo
"Send money, guns and lawyers," said pitcher Bill Lee as he ran up to a gaggle of loitering reporters one black March Day in Winter Haven in 1978. "The shit has hit the fan." The Red Sox had just traded for Dennis Eckersley.
(From the just-published "Under the March Sun: The Story of Spring Training," by Charles Fountain, who teaches at Northestern University. Copyright, 2009, Oxford University Press
Even as a stand-in "color" announcer for NESN, how do you follow Jerry Remy's act. The ailing Remy is an expert on baseball strategy with infectious humor and a natural talent for marketing. He put "Red Sox Nation" on the map.
Dennis "The Eck" Eckersley has acquitted himself well while at the same time taking his viewers to school. He's teaching us inside baseball lingo. Of course, it may be that only The Eck understands the language.
By now, if you've watched even one game with Eckersley as commentator, you must know what a "punchout" is. That's a strikeout, something he was adept at as one of the few pitchers ever named a Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Award winner. He also made baseball's Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
Do you know what he's driving at when he says, "He got paint"? That's a pitch that clips the edge of the plate, as compared to a "cookie", which is a curve that curls around the edge of the plate for a strike.
But how about this one: "This is chalk"?
That was his exclamation with the ball still in the air when Dustin Pedroia sliced a line drive down the right field line that landed fair, right on the line. The foul lines are made of chalk.
By now, too, viewers know that "cheese" is a fast ball: "Kevin Youkilis can really get around on the cheese," he once said. "Gas" is also a fastball, but "cheese" is as fast as a pitcher can throw and usually is reserved for use with strikeouts. However, when Jacoby Ellsbury hit a home run off an 86-mile-an-hour fastball, Eckersley said the pitch was "tired cheese".
One night Chris Volstad, a 6 ft. 8 in. Florida Marlins pitcher, was slated to start against the Red Sox. In his short career he had lost about as many games as he had won despite several shutouts. Said Eckersley as the game started, "We'll see if he has the gas."
Eckersley shudders when he sees a pitcher, even on the opposition, who has lost his speed but tries to keep the ball over the plate. "He's right down Broadway, with not a lot of hair on them (the pitches)." Another time after the Red Sox had peppered an opposing pitcher with singles, Eckersley pinpointed the problem: "He's throwing a lot of soft salad," he said, meaning there wasn't much speed on his pitches.
Then there is the "do-drop-in", which is a looping curveball, not to be confused with "the hook", which is a flat curveball. About the "do-drop-in", says Eckersley, "you have to throw it slow. It kind of floats up there and drops into the strike zone."
In his playing days Eckersley, with his bushy mustache and long hair flopping with every throw, pioneered the pitching designation that every team now has called "the closer". Jonathan Papelbon now plays that role for the Red Sox. A closer enters the game in the 8th or 9th inning, usually when his team is ahead, to close out the game.
Only Eckersley, now 54 years old, and John Smoltz (now with the Red Sox) have ended a season with 20 wins and 50 saves. Eckersley was a starting pitcher in his early career, tangled with alcoholism and became an eminent reliever. A control pitcher, his earned run average (ERA) was 0.61 in 1990. (Click here for brief video highlights
of Eckersley's career.)
When Eckersley has been unable to do the commentary (for instance, during part of July he had to be in Cooperstown), he has been spelled a few times by ex-players Dave Roberts and Jim Kaat. Roberts has in-depth knowledge of the game and isn't afraid to state an opinion, occasionally showing wit when prompted by playful play-by-play announcer Don Orsillo. Kaat is almost always Mr. Serious and tends to repeat himself, mentioning four times in one game that pushing the ball back into the hand enables pitchers to throw a changeup.
Most of Eckersley's lingo revolves around pitching naturally, but he has a few favorite descriptions of hitters, too, such as;
"He's up there hacking," referring to an aggressive batter, more intent on getting a hit than feeling out the pitcher or walking.
"He jacked that one into the gap," is his description of a right-handed batter who lashes a pitch between the left and centerfielders.
When a longball hitter flies out deep, Eckersley will comment:
"You gotta get it sweet to get it out of here. He didn't get the fat on the bat."
Don't be fooled by Eckersley's now trim hair and mustache and business suit. As a player he knew how to use the brushback pitch and never hesitated to taunt a batter, particularly after he had struck him out. That in part accounts for the quote above from Bill Lee, not exactly known for orthodox behavior himself. His nickname is "Spaceman".
In the last week of July against the Oakland Athletics, J.D. Drew, a lefthander, hit a pitch off the handle of the bat that Eckersley described as "a quail" as the ball looped into safe territory in front of the charging leftfielder.
Eckersley was in six All-Star games and recently commented that he was fortunate to have other teammates go with him in each instance. He said he would have hated to go alone. Describing his entrance into the American League locker room, he said, "I didn't have a lot of friends in there."
How would you feel if you were regularly punched out by Eckersley when he was throwing cheese or crossing you up with his do-drop-in pitch or giving you the hook that always found paint?
(More information about Dennis Eckersley and his career at Wikipedia).
Copyright © Rye Reflections 2009. All rights reserved.