Silver anniversary: A’s get Eck

A quarter-century ago, two teams engaged in what seemed like a fairly routine and scarcely notable transaction, but turned into one of the biggest steals of the 1980s.

On April 3, 1987, the Oakland A’s sent three minor leagues to the Chicago Cubs for Dan Rohn and Dennis Eckersley.

At the time it looked like a simple move. The Cubs were hoping that one of the three prospects would become something useful (none ever did), while the A’s hoped to get the last lingering drops of baseball from Eckersley.

People had good reason to think Eckersley might be through. He’d been a good starting pitcher for a decade, but his 30s hadn’t been kind to him. In 1985, his age 30 season, Eckersley had pitched well—but he couldn’t always pitch. He spent time on the DL, and made only three appearances over a two-month period.

1986 was even worse. While he had health problems the year before, at least he’d been effective when available. In a full season on the hill, Eckersley won just six games while posting a 4.57 ERA. It looked like his clock had expired.

So the Cubs willingly palmed him off to Oakland in exchange for some prospects. And, of course, that’s when Eckersley’s career took a very different course. Instead of winding down, it turned out the 12-year veteran had another dozen years left in his arm.

Oakland manager Tony LaRussa figured that if Eck couldn’t hack it as a starter, maybe he could help out the bullpen. Yeah, that move worked pretty well. Initially a middle reliever, by the end of the year he was the team’s relief ace.

The next year, he topped the league with 45 saves and finished second in the Cy Young Award voting. He began a glorious five-year run capped off by winning the 1992 Cy Young and MVP Awards.

Along the way, he and LaRussa transformed how teams used their relief ace. That Oakland bullpen had plenty of live arms – it’s arguably the greatest bullpen in history. The quantity of strong arms allowed LaRussa to use Eckersley in a more specific manner than teams had previously used their relief aces.

Up to that point in time, relief aces were firemen who could throw up to 100 innings a year thanks to plentiful multi-inning appearances. LaRussa didn’t need Eckersley to do that. Instead, he started saving Eckersley for the ninth inning, allowing him to close out games. Let the middle relievers handle the load until then. The modern closer was born.

Well, sort of. It wasn’t as clear-cut as the above paragraph makes it sound. Even in the MVP-winning 1992 season, Eck tossed 80 innings, considerably more than a modern closer would typically get. But the pattern had been set, and its been adopted by essentially every team since then.

One can wonder how the game might be different if it wasn’t for the trade of Eckersley to the A’s 25 years ago today. Would the A’s have found someone else to be their closer? Or would LaRussa have used his relief ace as a fireman, the way most teams did then? Even if there was no revolution in Oakland, would the current pitching staff alignment have occurred anyway?

Ultimately, those are forever unanswerable what-ifs, because the Cubs did in fact trade Dennis Eckersley to the A’s—and they did it 25 years ago today.

Aside from that, many other baseball events celebrate their anniversary or “day-versary” (which is an event occurring X-thousand days ago) today. Here they are, with the better ones in bold if you’d prefer to skim the list.

Day-versaries

1,000 days since the Mets’ Alex Cora hits a foul ball into the chin of ESPN reporter Erin Andrews. She goes to the hospital, but only has bruises.

1,000 days since Andruw Jones, then with Texas, belts three homers in a game for the second time in his career.

1,000 days since Scott Rolen’s longest career hitting streak maxes out at 25 games.

2,000 days since former Phillies outfielder Johnny Callison dies.

5,000 days since Jim Leyland endures his 1,000th loss as a manager. His career record is 981-1,000 when the game ends.

5,000 days since Ken Griffey Jr. steals three bases in a game for the only time in his career.

6,000 days since the Orioles sign Davey Johnson, a former Baltimore player, as their manager.

8,000 days since Roger Clemens records his 100th win. His record is 100-47.

8,000 days since AA player Bernard Gilkey gets three hits in one inning; a 16-run third inning for Louisville against Nashville. The team has 14 hits in 21 PA in the inning.

8,000 days since Rickey Henderson receives his second and final career walk-off walk.

9,000 days since the Cubs retire No. 26 for Billy Williams.

9,000 days since Mark McGwire establishes a new rookie record by belting his 39th homer of the season, passing the old record co-held by Wally Berger and Frank Robinson.

9,000 days since the St. Louis outfield records zero putouts in a 13-inning game. That sets a new record for longest game with no outfield putouts. St. Louis tops Philadelphia, 4-2.

20,000 days since Cincinnati fans threaten to sue Ford Frick unless Gus Bell, George Crowe, and Wally Post are all on the All-Star team. They each won election in fan voting – fan voting skewed by blatant ballot box stuffing in Cincinnati.

20,000 days since pitcher George Zuverink and catcher Frank Zupo of Baltimore combine to form the first all-Z battery in baseball history. The Yankees beat them, 3-2.

Anniversaries

1856 Guy Hecker, good-hitting pitcher, is born.

1888 The Cubs sell Hall of Fame pitcher John Clarkson to Boston for $10,000.

1899 Brothers Frank and Matthew Robinson, co-owners of the Cleveland Spiders, purchase the St. Louis franchise. They’ll ship all the team’s best players to the larger St. Louis area in the off-season. That ensures the Spiders will go 20-134 in 1899, and also ensures St. Louis won’t be contracted when the 1899 season ends, otherwise the modern day Cardinals wouldn’t be there.

1901 The Cincinnati Enquirer reports that the “Indian” Charlie Grant, really a black ballplayer, won’t join John McGraw’s Orioles squad. McGraw had flirted with the idea of passing off Grant as an Indian to try to get around the game’s informal color line.

1919 It’s one of the weirder competitions in baseball history as hefty ballplayer Ping Bodie takes on a challenger in a spaghetti-eating contest. The challenger? An ostrich. Really. The bout goes 11 rounds before the bloated bird passes out.

1923 Former Black Sox Swede Risberg and Happy Felsch sue the White Sox for damages and back salary. The suit won’t succeed.

1930 Chicago Cub catcher Gabby Hartnett catches a ball dropped from the Goodyear blimp. The blimp is 550 feet in the air, allowing Hartnett to break the old record sent by former Washington catcher Gabby Street, who once caught a ball dropped from the top of the Washington Monument, 504 feet in the air.

1930 Wally Moon is born.

1931 The White Sox purchase infielder Lu Blue from the Browns for $15,000.

1937 Dizzy Dean is in an ugly incident as he takes a swing at reporter Jack Miley. Diz’s brother Paul Dean and other Cardinals then attack him.

1938 Washington signs aging free agent outfielder Goose Goslin. It’s a return to a town where he’d had some of his best seasons.

1952 Phenomenal Smith, a 19th century pitcher so cocky (he gave himself the nickname “Phenomenal”) that his teammates once intentionally failed to field behind him, dies.

1962 Minnesota releases aging infielder Billy Martin.

1966 The Mets sign amateur free agent Tom Seaver.

1966 In spring training, Johnny Roseboro has his first at bat versus Juan Marichal since Marichal’s infamous assault on Roseboro the year before. Roseboro smacks a three-un inside-the-park home run off Marichal.

1969 Detroit releases former Pirates star reliever Roy Face.

1969 In spring training with the Pilots, manager Joe Schultz tells the team, “Well boys it’s a round ball and a round bat and you got to hit it square.” Jim Bouton records this wisdom for posterity in Ball Four.

1972 Former 20-game winner Alvin “General” Crowder dies.

1974 Cleveland trades 17-year-old minor leaguer Pedro Guerrero to the Dodgers for Bruce Ellingson. Ellingson will win one major league game while Guerrero will be one of the NL’s best hitters from 1981 to 1987.

1976 Bobby Bonds breaks his finger. He’ll play with it for 99 games this year before opting for surgery. Ouch.

1984 An arbitrator rules that yearlong suspensions for Willie Wilson and Jerry Martin need to be reviewed first.

1984 On Opening Day, the Rangers try to ban their fans from bringing food into the stadium. It doesn’t go well and the lines at concessions stands last over an inning and a fan backlash causes the team to end the ban.

1985 The lords of baseball decide to change the LCS from a best-of-five format to a best-of-seven format.

1986 Pedro Guerrero ruptures a tendon in his left knee while sliding into third base.

1989 In one game, two four-decade players make their major league debuts when the Seattle Mariners introduce Ken Griffey Jr. and Omar Vizquel. Elsewhere, Steve Finley also makes his big league debut.

1990 Pittsburgh trades Billy Hatcher.

1991 The White Sox sign free agent Bo Jackson.

1993 Philadelphia releases former Atlanta great Dale Murphy, who Colorado picks up that same day.

1993 Detroit signs free agent pitcher David Wells.

1994 Seattle signs Hall of Fame reliever Rich Gossage for what will be the last year of his career.

1995 With the players’ strike over, Sparky Anderson, who previously said he would never manage replacement players, resumes his job at the helm with the Tigers. Anderson tells reporters, “I can look in the mirror now.”

1996 St. Francis College tops Robert Morris University 71-1 in a game called after four innings. St. Francis scores 26 in the first inning, 22 in the second, only four in the third, then 19 more in the fourth.

1998 Jose Valentin, Milwaukee, hammers a trio of homers in one game.

1998 Javier Vazquez makes his big league debut.

1999 The Reds release minor leaguer Brendan Donnelly. Though Donnelly won’t make his big league debut until he’s 30 years old, he’ll have quite a nice run for himself as a reliever for the 21st century Angels.

2000 Johan Santana makes his major league debut. He pitches one inning of mop up relief in a game Minnesota loses 7-0 to Tampa. The first batter Santana faces, Dave Martinez, flies out.

2000 Two manager begin their dugout careers on this day: Mike Sciosica and Charlie Manuel.

2001 Craig Biggio enjoys his only 5-for-5 game.

2001 Brandon Inge and David Eckstein both make their big league debuts.

2003 The Mets trade Gary Matthews Jr. to the Orioles.

2004 Cleveland trades the troubled Milton Bradley to the Dodgers for two players.

2005 Alex Sanchez becomes the first big leaguer suspended under the steroid policy.

2006 Dan Uggla and Nick Markakis each make their big league debuts.

2010 The Dodgers release veteran first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz.

2010 Jim Pagliaroni, the man who was on deck when Ted Williams homered in his last at bat, dies. Pagliaroni was also one of Bouton’s better friends on the 1969 Pilots. At the SABR convention in Seattle in 2006, Pagliaroni stole the show in a 1969 Pilots panel featuring him, Bouton, Mike Marshall, and Steve Hovley.

2011 Bobby Abreu gets on base seven times in one game. He goes 5-for-5 with a pair of walks, but his Angels lose 12-9 to the Royals.

2011 The Indians set a new record low attendance at Jacobs/Progessive Field: 9,853 paid attendance. This record will be broken the very next day.

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Comments

  1. kds said...

    1899; it’s the brothers Robison, not Robinson.

    1919; Joe Jackson, “I bet all my money on the ostrich, he doesn’t wear shoes…”

    1969;  it’s April 3rd, what shape were the bats and balls the previous 6 weeks since pitchers and catchers reported?

    1996;  saints whip patriots, western Pennsylvania version.

  2. Hecubot said...

    I saw Eck’s first appearance for the A’s.  Came in for long relief and threw five innings (or so) of no-hit ball.

    He replaced Jay Howell as closer, as I recall.

    What a bullpen: Gene Nelson to Rick Honeycutt to Eck.  7/8/9 over.  Relentlessly efficient.  Made Storm Davis a 16 game winner.

  3. John C said...

    They actually did the same thing with Honeycutt. He was another formerly successful starter (1983 AL ERA champ) at the end of the line, and the A’s gave him another 10 years of baseball in the bullpen. He even did well for a while as the A’s closer in ‘89 when Eck was hurt.

    They went the other way with Dave Stewart, turning a bad relief pitcher into a successful starter.

    I still don’t know if Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan were that smart, or just that lucky. But Eckersley changed the way the game was played, that’s for sure.

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