By Kevin Koczwara
Dennis Eckersley carries excitement with him everywhere he goes. This year, his intensity found a new home in the Red Sox broadcast booth, when Eckersley took over for Jerry Remy as Boston's color commentator on NESN in August.
"Ultimately, I am an intense guy, and I'm lucky to have a place to go with it," Eckersley said in a phone interview last Wednesday. "It's who I am. It's an extension of playing, really -- having to bring that energy somewhere."
Eckersley's energy practically pulses off the television. He feels the game. And even though he used to play, he says he's not there to educate fans.
"I'm not there to teach. I'm there to bring excitement to the game," Eckersley says. "I get excited; it's legit." Eckersley used to thrive on the adrenaline of coming in and closing out a game. Now, at 59, he feeds off the exhilaration that live TV brings.
It took time for Eckersley to harness his energy and adjusting to working in the moment. His broadcast partner Don Orsillo helped him focus and bring out the personality that Eckersley displayed this season during games. Orsillo let Eckersley's famous and particular way of speaking emerge, too, by giving him the comfort he needed to be himself.
"Don has brought out and played to Dennis' true personality more than any other person he's worked with," Eckersley's wife Jennifer wrote in an email.
Eckersley developed his patented brand of talking about baseball, now known as "DialEckt," with teammate Pat Dobson. Its most notable expressions live on when Eckersley talks about pitching -- "yakker," "educated cheese" and "high cheese" have all become his catchphrases. DialEkt is a genuine part of him, not a persona.
Eckersley's quirkiness fits perfectly with this season's characters in the Red Sox locker room. He's passionate, extremely competitive and a little odd. He fell into the right place at the right time, which is how this Red Sox team feels, too. Eckersley admits that had Remy left a year earlier, while the Red Sox were in free-fall, the job would have been very different. Instead of ascending in the final six weeks of the season, the 2012 Red Sox fell off the table in September and became a punch line. This year, though, the team came together perfectly, every piece seeming to fit, an improvement Eckersley says he expected.
"Anybody was going to be better than what they were," says Eckersley. "But it's in the stars for this team."
As a player, Eckersley was known for his long hair, mustache, wicked fastball and energy on the mound. He thrived being on the spot with the game on the line.
When he retired from playing in 1998, Eckersley had no idea what he was going to do. He had to sort out his life off the field, because there wasn't anything but baseball in his life.
"I really didn't see anything, because I played for so long," says Eckersley. "Maybe if you don't play as long you have some sort of idea. But I played for 24 years, so I walked away [and] it took a while to figure it out, two or three years."
Eckersley retired with the Red Sox. His best years weren't spent with the team, but they kept in touch with him as if he was their own -- as if his years dominating hitters with the Oakland Athletics were really spent in the confines of Fenway Park.
"You'd think I had great years here. I had a couple, but they treat me with great respect," Eckersley says. "You'd think I won a World Series here."
Because of that close contact, when NESN was looking for hosts to anchor its in-studio coverage, Eckersley was on the list. Starting in 2002, he became a mainstay of Red Sox coverage on NESN.
In 2004, the same year the Red Sox ended the Curse of the Bambino, Eckersley was given his place in Cooperstown.
"I was trying to get used to wearing it, because it takes time to get used to being in the Hall of Fame," says Eckersley. "That was a great year, and then it finished off with the Red Sox winning the whole thing. It was wild."
In 2009, Eckersley moved to the booth for the first time, joining Orsillo and filling in for Remy, who was recovering from pneumonia and an infection related to lung surgery. Eckersley filled in from time to time when Remy was unable to make a road trip or needed a game off, but it never felt like the seat next to Orsillo was really Eckersley's at the time. He was unsure of himself and didn't seem comfortable showing his personality. This year has been different.
Physically, Eckersley has slowed down. He no longer goes running, for instance, instead playing "s---ty golf" during the offseason. But he's still the same person, still the player that wanted the ball with the game on the line. His wife says routine is very important to him, but even if this job throws that routine into flux, Eckersley has embraced his new role.
"It's amazing what you're capable of doing," says Eckersley. "It's game time. Someone may ruffle your plans, but when you're under pressure you just go for it. You don't know what you're made of until stuff like that happens."
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Kevin Koczwara is a journalist living in Worcester, Mass. He's contributed to The Classical, The Boston Globe, Narratively and other places. He tweets about sports and things @kkoczwara.