It began in America one year ago. The Utah Jazz’s Rudy Gobert got the coronavirus and the NBA shut down. We learned that American icon Tom Hanks and his wife tested positive for the virus while filming in Australia. The world as we knew it was over.
Fast-forward 12 months and I am talking with Hall of Fame pitcher Dennis Eckersley, a man Red Sox fans love to hear when NESN games are broadcast into our homes. In the middle of a casual conversation about the suspect 2021 Sox, I ask Eck how his winter went and he tells me, “It’s been good, but I got COVID, for [expletive] sake.
“I got it Jan. 4. I was on the West Coast visiting my daughter and her kids. I didn’t see the grandkids two days prior to finding out. It could have been a disaster if I gave it to my daughter or her kids.
“I had a feeling. I had been around somebody that had it and he called me and said he and his wife had it. I said, ‘Really?’ Two days later, I felt something. I went in, got tested, I had it.
“I had like a mild fever for 10 days and that’s all I had. It was annoying, but I couldn’t be annoyed because I didn’t have it that bad.
“It wasn’t pretty. I never felt right for a month. But I feel lucky. It can happen to anyone.’’
It can happen to anyone.
A year into this awful thing, that is still the message, and we cannot let our guard down. Eckersley got his first vaccine shot last Friday.
“I got the chills Friday night,” he said. “I got the shakes. But it’s gone. I feel lucky. You keep getting paranoid. Have I still got something? You never know.”
Eck is 66 years old. He has been our favorite since he was a 20-year-old rookie with the Cleveland Indians in 1975. He served two tours with the Red Sox, winning 20 games with the ill-fated 1978 team, and then (after he was traded to the Cubs for Bill Buckner) he came back to Boston to finish his Hall of Fame career in humbling mop-up duty for the Jimy Williams Sox in 1998. This is his 19th year with NESN.
Eckersley hopes to work 75-80 Sox games this year, all with Dave O’Brien, many with Jerry Remy. In 2020, the telecasts were done from NESN’s Watertown studio. They hope to return to the Fenway broadcast booth for home games in 2021, but the crew is unlikely to travel for any road games.
“I have mixed feelings about it,” said Eckersley. “Thinking selfishly, not having to go on the road is not such a bad thing. But you don’t want to lose being at the ballpark altogether. You don’t. I have a feeling we may not go on the road again. It saves a lot of money and everybody’s doing it. Can the viewers tell the difference?
“It’s not a stretch to go to the ballpark for the home games. You’d think if they have fans at Fenway that we’d be in the booth. But I don’t know.”
What does he think of the cost-conscious Tampa Bay Red Sox of 2021?
“I want to be positive about the pitching,” he said. “Anything’s better than what they threw out there last year. That was just an aberration.
“Pitching is what’s going to make it happen. We know they’re going to hit. They always hit. But can they pitch? Are they going to get enough surprises out of that staff?
“Is E-Rod going to be E-Rod again? [Nate] Eovaldi’s nasty, but it’s hard to have total confidence in something you haven’t really seen. They give [Garrett] Richards 10 million. They got some new guys in the bullpen. They’re going to be better. But they’re going to have a hard time winning 90 games.”
What about Richards’s much-touted spin rate? Does Eck know what spin rate is?
“I’ve got to be careful on that,” he said. “I don’t want to get into a conversation about it. I’ve had some conversations with [Jim] Palmer about that. But geez.”
Did you have spin rate, Eck?
“I don’t know, man,” he answered. “If you are going down that road, you’d better know what you are talking about. I’ll let Stat Masterson [Globe reporter/NESN contributor Alex Speier] handle it.”
What about the notion that the Red Sox teach all their pitchers to strike out every batter? They don’t seem to want balls in play.
“When I was younger, I tried to do that because I was stupid,” said Eckersley. “You can go for strikeouts more now because you’re only going to go five innings. And everybody out of the bullpen brings it.”
Mookie Betts was gone last year. Are Sox pitchers going to pay the price now that Andrew Benintendi and Jackie Bradley Jr. are also gone?
“It’s bigger than the attention it gets,” he said. “It doesn’t get any better than Jackie and Mookie. You always need a good right fielder. I don’t even know this [Franchy] Cordero dude. I don’t know anything. Whatever happens, I’ll see.”
How does he feel about the return of Alex Cora?
“I totally think Cora is the right guy for this team,” he said. “It’s obvious they all like the guy, and he can get the most out of [Rafael] Devers. He gets the most out of them.”
Will it be difficult to make this team interesting?
“I get excited, personally, when they have a good play,” he said. “I just get into it in the moment. I try to be fair, honest. I don’t know what some of these guys are capable of. What am I supposed to do? Pump somebody up that you don’t even know?”
He acknowledges that last season he and Remy spent a lot of time with O’Brien talking about the 1970s and ’80s. Reminiscing about nights in 1978 at Studio 54 overwhelmed analysis of the last-place Red Sox.
“That’s how we got by,” said Eck. “But that was a [expletive] season. Now we’ve got to get serious.”