We should all be as lucky as Dennis Eckersley.
The Hall of Fame pitcher saw his 50-year baseball career come to an end Wednesday at Fenway Park, as he signed off for the final time as a NESN broadcaster. Eckersley, enshrined into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2004, had carved out a wonderful post-playing run as a tell-it-like-it-is expert whose knowledge of baseball was surpassed only by his love for the sport.
He got to do what he loved for half of a century. Was it always easy? Of course not, though he certainly didn’t hide from the low moments. But he loved what he did and did what he loved. On Wednesday, he was at the center of a retirement send-off that allowed fans, friends and coworkers one chance to tell him how much he’s meant to them over the years.
How cool is that?
But when it comes to Eckersley, especially pertaining to his work in the broadcast booth, we were able to learn so much from him. The “Eckisms” have been covered ad nauseam, and few have as much of a feel for the game as he does. But in the last couple of months, as Eckersley broke the news of his retirement, he taught or reinforced lessons that extended beyond the diamond.
Eck announced his retirement in early August. In the days and months that followed, the decision was a hot-button topic, especially with the Red Sox floundering. In a lot of ways, Eckersley became one of the stories about the 2022 club. He handled himself with impressive humility and grace, and it was also clear there were messages he needed to communicate before stepping aside.
Eckersley revealed in an Aug. 9 interview with NESN’s Tom Caron on the pregame show that he spoke with the late Jerry Remy about his future plans. Even at the time, Eckersley says Remy encouraged him to go home to California and be with his grandkids.
“It’s tough. But it’s time. It’s time to go. I’ve got grandkids. Time is flying,” Eckersley said. ” … I’ve gotta be with those grandkids. Fifty years is long enough, and we’ll see where we go from here.”
That’s an impressive line of thinking, especially in pro sports. Whether it’s players, coaches or broadcasters, so many can’t envision their life without the sport. They’d rather go through that exhausting grind, year in and year out, even as time flies by because it beats whatever uncertainty lives outside the decades-long routine. Baseball inhabits the soul, right?
Eckersley, though, still at the top of his game and seemingly in good health, decided to instead cash in his chips.
“I am tired. I am tired of griding every day,” he told Will Middlebrooks in the NESN booth on Sept. 27. “Even when I don’t do these games, I’m thinking about it. I’m watching and I’m thinking baseball as soon as I open my eyes.
” … The thought of not having to do it anymore sometimes feels pretty good. It’s like ‘How long are you going to do this anyway?’ Most guys don’t leave this job. You can’t kick guys out of here.”
Throughout the process, Eckersley was unapologetically honest and vulnerable. That’s nothing new, obviously, but it still feels fresh and unique because so few people in sports and media are willing to talk about those things. Most are afraid to let their guard down and show people how they feel. Eckersley seemingly had no guard.
“I never felt like I had this job down pat,” he said Wednesday in an interview with Caron. “That’s why there’s this edge you have to go with in life. You’re never quite sure, and if you’re never quite sure, that’s the best that comes out of you. There’s nothing like this business. It’s the closest thing to playing baseball is to come in here and broadcast because you get a little nervous. What else is there? You are totally alive when you’re nervous even when you don’t wanna be sometimes. That’s the easy way out.”
And then there’s everyone else. Eckersley has had a lot of teammates over the years, a lot of people who have helped him achieve his goals on the field and in the broadcast booth. He’s been sure to thank those people over the years, but one thing that was admirable in this late-season march to the finish was how important it seemed to him to tell people how he felt about them — while he still had the chance.
“You mean a lot to me — I felt like I need to tell you that,” Eckersley told Caron during that Aug. 9 sitdown.
When the two reconvened Wednesday, an emotional Eckersley went deeper.
“I’m tired, man, of reflecting because it’s so emotional and heavy, but it’s life, and this is what you’re supposed to feel,” he said, reflecting on the reflecting. ” ? I can’t help but say something about you. You mean a lot to me, you really do.”
Regardless of who you are, and especially if you’re a legendary professional athlete who has been told your entire life just how good you are at something, it’s super-impressive to have the awareness and presence of mind to not only embrace those emotions but understand it’s a vital part of the human experience. That the man who routinely calls fastballs “cheese” and hair “moss” is also capable of that sort of thinking is the duality that has made Eckersley so captivating all these years.
It’s a bummer that moving forward we won’t get to check in with Eck as much as we have in the past. But he’s certainly earned that right, and after all this time with baseball being the focal point of his life, other things will take that place. It seems he’ll be just as happy, if not more, in the next chapter of his life.
But he also made sure to let those he’s leaving behind in New England know just how much they mean to him, too.
“I feel it more than ever because it takes times when you know you’re gonna go. People don’t just get up and go, but when you go, then you appreciate where you’ve been,” Eckersley said Tuesday night in the booth. “I’m a New Englander, man. I’m a Bostonian.
“? This place is my heart, man. I take this place with me forever.”