He is the quirky, candid, insightful, altogether indispensable voice of our baseball summer. And he sounded the alarm early about the flaws that have contributed to the recent tailspin by the Red Sox.
I speak of Dennis Eckersley, Hall of Fame pitcher turned Red Sox TV analyst extraordinaire.
The man known as Eck is part of an excellent broadcast team on NESN that includes play-by-play announcer Dave O’Brien and fellow analyst Jerry Remy. To his television task Eckersley brings a kid-on-Christmas-morning enthusiasm that is remarkable for someone who’s been in the game as long as he has, as well as a lexicon of entertaining Eck-isms (”cheese” for fastball, “going bridge” for hitting a homer, etc.) that keep us diverted in an era when every ballgame seems to last an eternity.
But Eckersley’s buoyancy and spontaneity are wedded to a capacity for astute analysis of the subtle mechanics and shifting moods of any given ballgame. Crucially, his analysis is delivered with the kind of frankness that is still rare among ex-players who migrate to the broadcast booth.
No matter what David Price may think, Eckersley is the furthest thing from a cheap-shot artist. But he does not run his opinions through a cautious filter before voicing them. He quite literally calls ‘em the way he sees ‘em. And he can quickly tell when a pitcher — or a team — is in trouble.
A few illustrative Eckersley sound bites from last Friday and Saturday’s Sox losses to the Tampa Bay Rays:
On the Red Sox pitching rotation: “This starting rotation has been very mediocre for a long time.” Returning to the same vexing subject, with more emphasis: “It’s been bad for a long time, too, the starting pitching.” Dismissing the overvalued statistic of strikeouts by pitchers: “They mean nothing to me. They really do. It’s ridiculous.”
After Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts dove headfirst into first base to beat out an infield hit, jeopardizing his recently injured wrist: “That diving, I don’t get it. It doesn’t make any sense.” When manager Alex Cora belatedly got a reliever up and throwing in the bullpen after a Sox pitcher was in trouble: “About time.” After catcher Christian Vazquez unwisely tried to stretch a single into a double and got thrown out at second: “Bad base-running.”
But Eckersley’s love for the game (and the Sox) means there’s no restraining his ebullience when things are going well. Even the unfulfilled possibility that the team might land ace pitcher Max Scherzer in a trade elicited post facto excitement from him. “That would have been, like, ‘Oh my gosh!’” exclaimed Eckersley.
His gift for colorfully summing up a moment emerged when a Rays hurler threw a fastball past Sox first baseman Bobby Dalbec (“He’s got some giddyup on that gas”) and when a pitcher looked ineffective after running up a high pitch count (“He’s on smelling salts right now.”) When NESN ran a replay of a Tampa Bay player’s home run, Eckersley translated the hitter’s reaction into the singular idiom of Eck-ese: “Batboy, take my bat, ‘cause this ball’s bridge.”
Broadcasters can be inextricably woven into our memories of a special year. I was a young kid during the Impossible Dream summer of 1967, but I can still hear Sox broadcaster Ken Coleman narrating the near-magical exploits of Carl Yastrzemski et. al. It remains to be seen whether this season will end with a World Series victory — the signs lately have not been encouraging — but however the season turns out, today’s kids will remember the voice of Dennis Eckersley years from now. Lucky them.