This debate was borne due to a night of trivia that Sports Geek recently experienced. One of the questions on the docket that night was “Who were the three Oakland A’s to win an MVP award in the 80’s and 90’s.” Dennis Eckersley, Jose Canseco, and Ricky Henderson were the answers. But who is the best of those three, you ask? I believe it’s Dennis Eckersley!
Before there was the forever intimidating presence of Mariano Rivera coming in from the bullpen to the strains of Enter Sandman blaring over the loudspeakers, there was a mustache covered pitcher with a mullet who was brought in to get the final three outs. How’s that for intimidation?
All of my personal lifetime memories of Eck revolve around his career as a reliever. It’s true that my biggest memory of him revolves around the “one-legged” bomb home run Kirk Gibson hit off of him in the 1988 World Series (I couldn’t believe what I just saw, either). But that one game in no way tarnishes the legacy of Dennis Eckersley. Gibson may have gotten the best of him that day, but Luis Gonzalez once got the best of Mariano Rivera… and I’m pretty sure that hasn’t tarnished his legacy.
As a reliever, Eckersley saved 390 games and had an ERA of 2.84. From 1998-1992 he was the most dominant reliever in the game, finishing first in the AL in saves twice, finishing second two other times, and finishing third once. My favorite Eckersley stat is that he only gave up five earned runs the ENTIRE 1990 season, which led to a microscopic 0.61 ERA. He also had outstanding control as a reliever, walking only 16 combined batters from 1989-1991. In 1992, he won both the AL MVP and AL Cy Young award, which has only happened twice before. In this era of home runs, I am not sure baseball will ever see that again.
What most of my generation doesn’t remember is that Eckersley was a solid pitcher in the early stages of his career. His record as a starter was 149-130 with a 3.71 ERA. He actually made the All-Star team as a starter twice. That doesn’t include his 1978 season when he won a career high 20 games.
Eckersley was the only pitcher to win both 20 games and save 50 games until John Smoltz matched that feat in 1992. His dual dominance is what eventually got him into the Hall of Fame, though it is safe to say his dominance as a closer is more impressive. It certainly helped the Oakland A’s dominate the American League from 1998-1992, though the team only won one World Series during that time. Those really were some good teams, as Babe Ruthless and Sports Geek are highlighting two other players from those teams today.
But Dennis Eckersley gave those teams that swagger. I’m not sure any other player could have gotten away with pointing at the batter after a strikeout like he used to do. He was a real-life “Dennis the Menace.” The other teams knew the game was essentially over when Eck came in with a lead in the ninth inning. And that’s what makes him the most valuable Oakland Athletics’ MVP.