Indians

On Tribe Talk, Dennis Eckersley, and Mother’s Day

Ron Kuntz Collection/Diamond Images

A local FM rock radio station once featured a call-in segment on Friday afternoons. One by one, callers would share the punchlines of jokes. It didn’t matter how raunchy the jokes were if the punchlines were clean. And they weren’t all dirty — some were silly, while others were just fun cultural references, like gags from a movie. The DJ would get them on the air in rapid-fire fashion, hitting maybe a dozen jokes in order. He would plow through the calls so quickly, it was a challenge to catch them all. You’d be laughing at one as he moved on to the next. Or, you’d be trying to knit the joke together in an attempt to ‘get it.’

“You’re next!”

“So an idiot can know whether he is coming or going.”

“You’re next!”

“No doc, I’m just a little horse.”

“You’re next!”

“I decided if I’m gonna BE impotent, I’m gonna LOOK impotent.”

While I do Twitter, I am not very tech-savvy. I do not do Facebook, so I don’t connect with a lot of folks from my past that way. But one Friday, I heard a familiar voice.

“You’re next!”

“That’s SPROCKET, not SOCKET.”

“You’re next!”

“Walk him and pitch to the rhino.”

“You’re next!”

“Honest, darling. You are the only one. With the others, I was awake.”

Wait, I knew that guy. The first one, immediately above. It was my ex-roommate Alex. The punchline was from an early Steve Martin routine. It came not from a ‘real’ joke, but an awkward-funny spoof of a comic entertaining an industry-specific audience. It purposely made no sense.

Even if I hadn’t instantly recognized Alex’s voice, the Steve Martin reference was the clincher. Jake loved the guy. It was good to hear him; the years we roomed together came to mind — both the good and the not-so-good. I smiled. On balance, the memories were positive.

It reminded me of a radio caller from the early 1990s. I lived four hours from The Jake, but kept up with the Cleveland Indians via ‘3WE’ (now WTAM). By evening, I could catch Tribe talk through varying levels of AM static. In the pre-internet explosion era, that station was my lifeline to Cleveland sports.

I had become hooked on the station from way back in my 1970s childhood. We would arrive at school sharing the comments made the previously evening (after our bedtimes) by the outlandish, trailblazing Pete Franklin. Occasionally, one of us would get on the air and irritate him. A tried and true way to do that was to call him, “Frank Petelin.” I think he sometimes enjoyed ‘despising’ having kids on the air with him.

By the ’90s, the Indians had been a bad team for decades. Now, however, there was a general feeling of excitement. There was going to be a brand-new, baseball-only stadium in town. Actually, no — it was to be a ballpark that was going to not only be the diametric opposite of the dingy, damp, windswept old stadium (which I did enjoy). It was going to be as nice as any park in baseball. Certainly better that all of the ‘cookie cutter’ venues in cities that had scoffed at our stadium for years.

I listened to a lot of Tribe talk in those days. Kevin Keane was a favorite; he lived and died with the team. A manic depressive just like the rest of us.

You know how when you hear a name that matches one with which you are familiar, you pay close attention? One day, I heard Keane introduce a caller as “Flo.” Flo came on and talked about the Indians for a couple minutes. From 250 miles away, I paused and strained to hear through the static. Keane was really nice to her, giving her some space, and he eventually moved on to another caller.

I am ashamed to admit, I might have rolled my eyes a little. Flo was my mother. She was into the Tribe, although she didn’t know all that much about baseball. She could become concerned with the mental readiness of the team, or how much fun a player seemed to have on the field. Always a biggie: the perceived level of respect the city of Cleveland was getting from the national media.

Mom had her favorite players. She’d met Indians shortstop Felix Fermin once, and talked about how great he was to talk to. The Browns’ Jim Brown was extremely nice to her once, and despite his well-documented history with domestic abuse, I will always treasure that.

I recall thinking about how I’d followed sports all the way back to those nights as a small child, surreptitiously listening to Steve Albert’s Cleveland Crusaders hockey broadcasts from the old arena. Mom was never much interested in sports then — now, she was becoming a regular caller on the main Indians talk show. Never mind that she really didn’t know baseball. At its core, her interest was an extension of her concern over the city’s public profile.

When she latched on to a cause, Mom was a bulldog. I recently opened a box, in the basement. There was a stack of interesting documents, like a letter from then-governor Dick Celeste’s office, trying to explain why even though my brother had joined the National Guard as the result of their promise of free college, the college money had dried up (it was surely someone else’s fault).

A good chunk of the stack of paper was stationery from the 1980s. Curious, I began reading. I didn’t know any of the people with whom she’d corresponded, but I immediately understood what the messages were. Unbeknownst to me, she had become a surrogate mother for a time, with U.S. troops who were stationed abroad. No doubt lonely and homesick, they received letters and baked goods from Mom.

They, it was clear, did not roll their eyes at her.

This mothering had been foreshadowed by her brother Tom’s service in Vietnam, circa 1970. She often wrote letters to Tom, and sent boxes of homemade cookies along with notes from us kids. I recall knowing very clearly that Tom’s fellow Marines treasured the crumbs the cookies turned into as they passed from suburban Ohio to the war.

Mom died in January of 2002. It didn’t seem fair. She was not old, and as is almost always the case with pancreatic cancer, by the time it was diagnosed, it was too late to try to reverse the course she was on. During that short time she was sick, 9/11 and its immediate aftermath was playing out. Who knew, at the time, if another ‘shoe’ was about to drop? We tried not to focus on that — or even on the relatively mundane matter of the idiots proudly throwing bottles on the field at the Browns-Jaguars game (Browns fans, sometimes I have a love/hate relationship with you).

She had a spirit that came from a place of wanting to help others, to see them succeed. Today, I have trouble legitimately imagining what was going on in my head, as a 20-something, when I rolled my eyes at her.

◆◆◆

When we kids were young, our family made regular trips to the stadium every summer. Occasionally, time stood still. A memory I treasure in particular is from 1977. Mom was there, experiencing every moment and cheering along with the 13,500 others in attendance.

Dennis Eckersley, then in his third season with the Indians, was the Tribe’s starter vs. the California Angels. I learned later that Eckersley was talking trash with opposing starter Frank Tanana throughout the game. Once, he pointed to the on-deck batter and shouted, “You’re next!” — while still pitching to the previous batter, and working on an 0-2 count, to boot.

My brother (12 years old at the time) remembers thinking how boring the game was; the only scoring of the game was Duane Kuiper being bunted home after tripling in the first inning. He’d changed his tune as the crowd’s murmur over the “no-no” in progress eventually blossomed, living and dying with each pitch, with each swing, with each out.

By the time Eckersley struck out Gil Flores to end the 1-0 game, the entire crowd was in a frenzy. My brother remembered that I wanted to run out onto the field and “grab some turf” (hey, that’s what fans did in those days), and of course Mom was having none of that. But what a game. And Eck was in the midst of a 22-plus inning no-hit streak. When Dennis Eckersley was on, he dominated.

The catcher for Eckersley’s no-hitter was one-time Tribe phenom Ray Fosse, back in Cleveland for a short time. Prior to the 1976 season, he’d been purchased from the Oakland A’s.

Eckersley was a fun guy to follow during his career. He has been acknowledged as the originator of the term “walk off” to describe a game-winning home run. He and Cleveland teammate Pat Dobson had their own baseball jargon, known to some as DialEckt. Some of the jargon is still widely used. Some examples of DialEckt: cheese (fastball), yakker (curveball), kitchen (inside pitch) and kudo (the bow a batter takes when he bails out). As a Peter Gammons Sports Illustrated piece quoted Eckersley in 1988, “Pitching is simple: cheese for the kitchen and a yakker for the kudo.”

However, Dennis Eckersley also was haunted by some demons in those days. He was an alcoholic who drank to excess after games. In the spring of 1978, at the ripe age of 23, Eckersley learned that he was being traded to the Boston Red Sox. That same day, he was told by his first wife that she didn’t love him anymore.

His Cleveland roommate had been Rick Manning, a multi-tooled outfielder with star potential. Eckersley soon learned that while an injured Manning had remained in Cleveland during Tribe road trips, he had begun having an affair with his wife. The two eventually married. Eckersley said later that he was hurt at first, but that they had gotten married while they were still too young. Others have marveled at how well Eckersley has handled this double betrayal throughout his life.

Eckersley bounced from Boston to the Cubs, and then to his hometown of Oakland in 1987, the year in which he decided to seek help with his alcoholism. Manager Tony LaRussa and pitching coach Dave Duncan turned him into a closer for the A’s, and Eckersley’s career skyrocketed. On a team with the power of Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, Dennis Eckersley was the foundation. He was at the top of his game, at last.

Dennis Eckersley helped the Oakland A’s win a World Series. He’s one of a handful of pitchers who can boast of having thrown a no-hitter and also of having pitched a 40-save season. He finished his career just 3 wins short of 200, and he totaled 390 saves. He was elected to Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 2004.

His pitching thrilled my mom once, back in the day. Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.

  • The Other Tim

    And to tie this up in a neat little bow, the day Eck was traded to Boston, Pete Franklin had Dennis and his wife on the show via phone to talk about that trade and how excited they were. 12 year old me had no idea what was going on and I’m not sure Eck did either. I remember it because it seemed so odd that a player’s wife was on The Pete Franklin Show.

  • mgbode

    fantastic job of story-telling. love having these especially as a Friday read.

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  • Harv

    This is great, Greg.

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  • jpftribe

    Super read. Brings back memories. Thanks for sharing.