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Eckersley, Molitor enjoy emotional day in Cooperstown

Posted: Monday, July 26, 2004

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. Dennis Eckersley can still come up with the save in a tough spot.

Flanked by 50 Hall of Famers, cheered by hundreds of fans, and staring out at his parents, Eckersley repeatedly fought back tears on Sunday and managed to complete his induction speech into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The cocky right-hander with the mustache and shaggy hair was humbled as never before.

''It was brutal. I've never been through something like this. I can't explain it,'' said Eckersley, who was elected on the first ballot in January with former Milwaukee Brewers star Paul Molitor. ''I've been nervous before, but you just don't know how it's going to come off. I'd rather pitch. It's overwhelming.''

Even more overwhelming than when Eckersley was on the mound. In 24 seasons with five teams, he appeared in 1,071 games, the most of any Hall of Fame pitcher, and finished with a record of 197-171 and 390 saves.

The sweet-swinging Molitor accumulated 3,319 hits in his 21-year career with Milwaukee, Toronto and Minnesota.

Eckersley grew up in the Oakland area and his parents were always near when he was playing ball. His father, Wallace, would leave work early to watch him play, coached Little League and even dragged the infield before and after games in his Ford Ranchero while mom, Bernice, worked the snack bar.

They were there on Sunday, even though dad is confined to a wheelchair and breathes with the help of an oxygen tank because of emphysema.

''My parents were there for me, and they're here for me now,'' Eckersley said. ''My dad struggled to get here today, and both of us knew nothing could have stood in the way of us sharing this moment together.''

Eckersley, who broke in with Cleveland in 1975, began his career anew after the Chicago Cubs dealt him to Oakland at the start of the 1987 season when his baseball life seemed all but over because of drinking problem.

Under the guidance of manager Tony La Russa and bullpen coach Dave Duncan, Eckersley was converted from a starter into an overpowering reliever and quickly became the game's dominant closer, expected to pitch only the ninth inning when the A's had a lead.

It was a revolutionary idea at the time, transformed the position into what it is today, and became his ticket to Cooperstown. But without seeking help for his alcoholism prior to that season, Eckersley wouldn't have attained the highest honor in the sport.

Recalling that struggle produced the most poignant moment of his speech.

Even Molitor, who spoke first, was wiping his eyes as Eckersley spoke.

Molitor also praised his parents, who are deceased.

''Somehow, in the midst of raising eight kids, she managed to see me play a lot of games,'' Molitor said of his mother, who died in 1988. ''But my mom always thought she was a jinx. She'd come to the games and watch them from her car or she'd hide behind a tree. It continued even to the major leagues. I'd leave her seats in the family section and I couldn't find her. She'd walk around looking for an empty seat.''

His father died of cancer two years ago but knew this day would come.

''He had told his doctors that they'd better get him healthy because he had a date in Cooperstown,'' said Molitor.



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