Red Sox fans have been lucky to know Dennis Eckersley for a long time.
First, of course, through two stints as a pitcher (1978-84, then a career-capping Boston coda in 1998) during a 24-year playing career that culminated with enshrinement in Cooperstown.
Then, since 2003, as an analyst who conveyed incisive thoughts with his own distinctive lingo on NESN’s Red Sox broadcasts.
Now, Eckersley has decided it’s time to focus on a different role, and to make sure two people in particular will know him well.
Eckersley is retiring from the NESN booth at season’s end. His last broadcast will be Oct. 5, the regular-season finale. He and his wife, Jennifer, are moving to his native California in October so he can spend as much time as possible with his twin grandchildren, who will turn 4 years old that month.
“I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, I really have,” said Eckersley, who turns 68 in October. “Not that it matters, but it’s kind of a round number, leaving. I started in pro ball in ‘72, when I was a 17-year-old kid right out of high school. Fifty years ago. And I’ve been with NESN for 20 years, even though it doesn’t feel like that because I didn’t do much my first four or five years. So it’s time.”
But the symmetry in numbers isn’t why he has decided that this is the time to leave. It’s of the utmost importance to him to be present as a grandfather.
“There are times in your life when you realize you’ve got to get on with it," he said. “Having grandkids in the Bay Area and visiting them in the offseason, that pushed me along. I just knew, you need to go and be with the kids. Those formative years, you need to be there.
“There’s only so much time. How can you not see that in front of you without thinking, ‘Wait a minute, man’? There have to be other priorities. You need to think of other people.”
Red Sox fans may be surprised, even stunned, by Eckersley’s decision to walk away. He’s working approximately 75 games this season and remains as sharp and entertaining as ever.
But his bosses at NESN have known for a while that it was a possibility.
“I was hemming and hawing through the offseason last year when they were trying to get guys lined up and they were auditioning," he said. “It didn’t blindside them. I’ve been sitting on this for a while.
“NESN has been really great to me. They let me be whoever I wanted to be. They let me be myself. They just let me do my thing.
“When you think about it, when it’s all over, said and done, what a great partnership this has been for me and the Red Sox and NESN. It was made in heaven. I was just talking to Jennifer about it, how it was a place that mirrored my passions. Perfect match.”
The network echoed his sentiments.
“We are fortunate that Dennis has been a part of our Red Sox coverage on NESN for 20 years,” said Sean McGrail, NESN president and CEO. “His unbridled passion, nuanced insights and Eck humor will be dearly missed and we are thankful for his many contributions to NESN. We wish him the best as he embarks on this next chapter of his life as a grandfather, father, husband, and member of Red Sox Nation.”
If he has a lament, it’s that he didn’t get to work with Jerry Remy more often. Remy was in his 16th season as a popular analyst in 2003 when Eckersley joined NESN, and through the years, Eckersley was always respectful of his former Red Sox teammate’s place and status. But in the last couple of seasons, before Remy’s death from cancer last October, they were often together in a three-man booth with play-by-play voice Dave O’Brien, and the chemistry, particularly in their most candid moments, was extraordinary.
“Looking back on working with Jerry, it ended up being wonderful," said Eckersley. “And when we finally did it regularly, it ended too soon.”
Eckersley acknowledges that the job isn’t without its stresses. The Eckersleys currently live in Hingham, and the drive to Boston, as any commuter knows, isn’t exactly great for the mood.
“You could take that I-93 and …” he said, suggesting an act that isn’t printable in a family publication. “I remember once last year when I was driving bumper-to-bumper, I was thinking, ‘I’ve got to get out of here.’ By the time I got to the ballpark I was stressed to the gills.”
Eckersley’s easygoing style on the air belies the tireless preparation he puts into the job, which includes going home and watching West Coast games after his Red Sox broadcast ends.
He thought about “helicoptering in” next season, as he put it — doing a few games here and there, which NESN would have allowed — but he decided it would feel like he was cheating the viewers.
“I can’t do that. You’ve got to be all-in to do this job,” he said. “That’s something that I take pride in. I’m watching all the time, everything. That’s the prep — watching.”
He laughed and added, “I’ve been living this [expletive] for 50 years. This is what I know. I don’t know what it’s going to be like not to have to pay attention.
“It’s funny how this all started. I came back my last year in ‘98 to play here. Why, I don’t know. I was horrible. But there was probably a reason I was supposed to do that when you look back at your life. I may have never fallen into broadcasting if I hadn’t.”
While Eckersley is leaving broadcasting, he is not leaving Fenway Park behind for good. He’s already looking forward to returning from time to time for corporate and community functions and appearances in the ballpark’s Legends Suite.
“I can’t say enough about Boston, and I’ll be back,” he said. “I’ll be up there [in the Legends Suite] waving my [butt] off.
“What good timing, though. Started when I was 17, and now I’m walking. It’s been a pretty good run.”