These days, Dennis Eckersley would make anyone - stranger or friend - feel comfortable. Articulate, bright, enthusiastic, and energetic, the 33-year-old ace of the Oakland Athletics' bullpen has no qualms about discussing professional self-assessment. There's an air of confidence - not cockiness - about Eckersley, a matter-of-factness that makes him pleasant to be around, easy to talk with. The Eck, as he's known to most fans, has come full circle. As a young starter in 1977, he pitched a no-hitter with Cleveland; a year later he won 20 games with Boston. In 1985, pitching for the Chicago Cubs, he had arm problems that created internal and industrywide doubt about his worth. He's been traded cross-country and cross-league.
The latest deal, and the one that launched a new phase in his career, landed him in Oakland in 1987. Although he had been a starter for a dozen years, the Bay Area native found himself switched to the bullpen. And the transition that produced 16 saves in 19 opportunities in 1987 has flowered big time in '88.
When the Eck stopped a two-on, no-out rally cold in the eighth inning Saturday to preserve a 4-1 victory over Toronto, it was his major-league-leading 27th save - a key factor in Oakland's position atop the American League West. Indeed, Dennis has saved almost half of his team's 55 wins in its first 92 games - a rate that would eclipse the single-season mark of 45 held jointly by career relief experts Bruce Sutter and Dan Quisenberry.
Ironically, the move to the bullpen was more by fluke than any preconceived design on the part of the team's high command. Oakland manager Tony LaRussa says the project began as something of ``an accident'' when the hard-throwing right-hander joined the club a year ago as spring training concluded.
The rotation was set, especially for the early season, when uncertain weather and more off-days limit the number of starters needed. Thus the swarthy Eckersley, with his familiar flowing dark brown hair and mustache, was the odd-man out until he found his new role.
``It wasn't any one person's idea,'' said pitching coach Dave Duncan during a recent series against the Royals here. ``[Because] Dennis was coming off a little bit of a bad spring, we thought we would give him work out of the bullpen first. ... In the event we needed a starter, we anticipated using him.''
Eckersley didn't care much for the plan. For a lifelong starter, such treatment compared to Siberian banishment.
He did get two starting assignments in May, but then Jay Howell - expected to be the closer - sustained an injury. That left a gaping hole. Who would hold on to those one- and two-run leads in the eighth and ninth innings?
Eckersley's cry of ``Not me, that's not what I do'' rang out loudly. Before 1987, he'd made 376 appearances, all but 17 as a starter. In the last decade he had relieved exactly once.
``I became more realistic as time went on,'' a now-placated Eckersley says. ``I thought it would be best to further my career. How can I complain? At the same time it was a demotion. That took some time getting used to. It was a mental adjustment, then a physical adjustment.''
Eckersley learned ``how to get loose; how quickly you can get loose; whether you can pitch two, three days in a row. You never know it,'' he says, ``until you experience it. I guess I've been fortunate my arm's been resilient.''
Eck's willingness to go along with the switch exemplifies a new maturity also evident in his attitude toward training. Early in his career Dennis earned a reputation as a fun-loving guy who didn't necessarily take care of himself. Now, though still a gregarious type, he's a well-conditioned, 6 ft. 2 in., 195-pound machine who exercises and runs daily year round, and who enjoys staying in shape.
When Eckersley accepted the relief job, his relaxed demeanor and personality took over. Not only did he perform consistently well, he also demonstrated adaptability. In a facet of the game filled with specialties - roles defined by terms such as ``middle relief,'' ``setup man,'' and ``closer'' - Eck thrived as generalist.
``He was just amazing,'' LaRussa recalls. ``No matter what you gave him, he just pitched so well.''
``He pitched so effectively in long relief,'' echoes Duncan. ``He kept us in games, gave us a chance to win games. When we did need a starter we were reluctant to use Dennis, because it would have left too big a void in our bullpen. As Howell's availability became more questionable, he just worked himself into more and more significant roles.'' (Howell was traded to Los Angeles last winter).
Eck still has the lively fastball he arrived with in 1975, plus an array of other pitches. Always stern and intense looking on the mound, he goes after hitters with a great deal of drive, fervor, and determination. ``I don't have to save anything,'' says the man who struck out 105 batters in 104 relief innings last year, while compiling a 6-6 record and a 2.60 earned-run average. ``I'm more aggressive, although I still go after spots - and I've put the change-up in my back pocket.''
His always super control, evidenced by a career average of 2.25 walks per nine innings, has never been better. Last year he averaged 1.38 passes per nine innings (17 in 115) for the best ratio among all major league relievers. Thus far in 1988, he's walked six men in 44 innings - an even lower percentage - while posting a 2-1 record with a 1.41 earned-run average through games of last weekend..
It's obvious Dennis has not only adjusted, but also learned to like his work.
``They're paying me to do a job,'' he says. ``When you're making a lot of money, there's no time to say, `This is what I want to do.' It's their choice.''
As he basks in attention, memories of his days as a starter now fade quickly.
``The fact that Dennis got off to a real quick and successful start has helped him to enjoy the role he's in,'' says Duncan. ``He's accepted it; it's challenging to him.''
And at this point, LaRussa doesn't foresee the circumstance that would force him to insert Dennis into the rotation.
``He'd probably be unhappy about it,'' the manager says. ``He's having fun in short relief.''