In the days since we learned that this will be Dennis Eckersley’s final season on NESN’s Red Sox broadcasts, reminders of how much he will be missed have been plentiful.
The most poignant was his conversation explaining his decision on Tuesday’s pregame show with Tom Caron, the studio host on the broadcasts. The longtime colleagues’ emotions were laid bare and their mutual respect apparent.
But the funniest, the most quintessentially Eck moment? That occurred Thursday night during the Red Sox’ 4-3 win over the Orioles, when Baltimore pitcher Keegan Akin dialed up a fastball at a higher velocity than Eckersley was anticipating.
“Ninety-six,’’ said Eck. “That’s more than I thought he had. He must have gone to Cheese School this offseason.”
“Cheese,” as most Red Sox fans must know, has been part of Eckersley’s unique vernacular since he came to the club in a trade with Cleveland in March 1978. Peter Gammons was the first to put together an “Ecktionary” in his gem of a book, “Beyond the Sixth Game.” (An excellent Twitter account, @ecktionary, currently does the same. )
But cheese school? Now that’s a new one. Eckersley has been with NESN 20 years and pitched for the Red Sox for a total of eight in two stints, and until Tuesday, we had no idea that there was a place of higher learning for pitchers in the quest for superior cheese.
We’re going to miss Eckersley when he retires after the regular-season finale Oct. 5. There’s an argument to be made that Eck was as good at this job as he was at his previous one, that pitching gig he held for 24 years in Cleveland, Boston, Oakland, and St. Louis, which culminated with his first-ballot induction in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
But all these reminders of why we’ll miss him also serve to underscore the incredibly difficult task ahead for his current employer.
NESN isn’t just going to miss him. It has to figure out how to try to replace him.
Eckersley will end up working approximately 75 games this year, or what amounts to pretty much the entire home schedule. Among NESN’s other color analysts, all of whom were new this year as the network attempted to fill the void left by the death of Jerry Remy in October, Kevin Youkilis will have worked around 50 games, and Tony Massarotti approximately 40 by season’s end, with three-man booths part of that equation.
Kevin Millar was an analyst on 20 broadcasts, and remarkably, never once paused for a breath.
It worked out pretty well this year. Millar’s yee-haw Cowboy Up image remains popular with a lot of fans. Massarotti’s enthusiasm and common-sense approach were a pleasant surprise, at least for those worried that he would bring his cynical persona from his afternoon-drive role on 98.5 The Sports Hub to the booth.
Youkilis is the most promising. He figured out how to channel his knowledge and enthusiasm into compelling analysis as the season went on, and if he decides to do this long term, he has a bright future.
But I also look at his baseball-reference.com page, see that he made more than $50 million in his playing career, and I’m reminded of something Remy once told me. He said he had to get a job when his career ended because players in his day didn’t make life-changing money, and he felt obligated to work every game he could.
Now, many if not most established players do make big bucks, and it’s become harder and harder to find an ex-player with a decent nest egg who wants to commit to doing 75-100 games a year, let alone a full schedule as Remy did for much of his career.
I wouldn’t expect NESN to announce next year’s plans anytime soon — the confirmation of this year’s lineup didn’t come until mid-March — but Youkilis, Massarotti, and Millar are expected to be in the mix again next year. Dave O’Brien will be back as the play-by-play voice.
Even if one or a couple of the holdovers pick up some of Eckersley’s workload, NESN is still going to have to hire someone else. This is pure speculation at the moment, but there are two people currently in the market who I think would do the job well:
1. Will Middlebrooks: The former third baseman is in his first year as part of NESN’s studio team. He has a jovial, self-deprecating demeanor, an understanding of analytics and as much of an understanding as any of us of what the Chaim Bloom Red Sox are trying to do, and no former Sox player has a better rapport with fans on social media.
2. Lou Merloni: Framingham Lou is busy as it is, co-hosting his afternoon drive program on WEEI and serving as a host/analyst for NBC Sports Boston. But he has done quality work in the past on WEEI’s radio broadcasts, and NESN was interested in adding him to their broadcasts prior to this season. If he wants to do it, he’d be a solid choice.
As for other options? There’s some talk that Brock Holt might like to get into broadcasting. He’d be popular, but sometimes it’s tough for recently retired players to separate themselves from the field. Lenny DiNardo, not the biggest name but always a pleasant presence, is worthy of more reps, whether in the studio or booth.
Hiring an actual big name such as Ron Darling is probably a pipe dream. SNY pays its popular Mets broadcast team — Gary Cohen, Keith Hernandez, Darling — well.
It would be a huge surprise if NESN hires someone as well known as Eckersley. And it’s not even fair to expect them to come up with someone nearly as good.