In his six seasons with the A's, Dennis Eckersley has gone from washed-up starter to strong Hall of Fame candidate.
Eckersley, 37, has had two distinct careers in baseball -- the first 12 seasons as a starting pitcher, going from rising star to mediocre journeyman -- and the past five-plus as the premier closer in baseball.
It is the second, relatively short period that has led many baseball insiders and Hall voters to rate him a lock to become one of the few pitchers elected to the Hall for his work as a reliever.
"All you have to do is look what he's meant to our club this season," A's manager Tony La Russa said of Eckersley, who has 30 saves and a 1.67 ERA. "Where would we be without him? I don't even want to think about it. He's a very special player, the kind that comes around once in a while."
When injuries hit the A's this season -- outfielders Dave Henderson, Jose Canseco, Rickey Henderson and shortstop Walt Weiss have missed significant time -- Eckersley played a key role in keeping the A's in or near first place in the American League West.
The A's are 37-0 in games Eckersley has pitched, and he is on pace for 57 saves, which would tie the major-league mark set by the Chicago White Sox's Bobby Thigpen in 1990.
"He's actually getting better with age," Detroit manager Sparky Anderson said. "There are very few players who get better the closer they get to 40. He's kind of a freak, like Ryan or Rose, guys who are playing top-caliber baseball at a late age. I love to see it because it's great for the game.
"I always said Rollie Fingers was the best reliever I ever saw. But that was until I saw Eckersley. He is the best at what he does. He's already in the Hall of Fame."
Fingers, a standout with the A's in the early '70s and then with San Diego and Milwaukee, and Hoyt Wilhelm are the only relievers elected to the Hall of Fame.
Whether Eckersley joins them will be a matter of how his new breed of closer -- one-inning wonders -- will be evaluated. Eckersley is tied for 10th in career saves with Gene Garber at 218.
Even Fingers, who will be inducted this summer and pitched into the '80s, was used much differently than relievers of today. In Fingers' era, closers often pitched two or more innings to pick up a save. Wilhelm, who pitched in the '50s, '60s and '70s, was used in a set role even less. Eckersley, meanwhile, sometimes pitches to one batter and gets a save.
"He doesn't have to apologize for the way the rules are set up," said A's teammate Rich Gossage, now a set-up man after recording most of his 308 saves as one of the game's best closers. "He's still doing things no one else can now."
Eckersley's dramatic turnaround began shortly after the A's acquired him from the Chicago Cubs for three career minor leaguers just before the 1987 season. The A's, needing bullpen help, convinced a hesitant Eckersley that he would best help the team as a reliever. Eventually, the Hall of Fame could be Eckersley's reward for accepting the move.
"My guideline for voting has always been: "Was the guy the most dominant player at his position for an extended period of time?' " said Jack Lang, the executive secretary of the Baseball Writers Association of America, the organization that votes for the Hall of Fame. "Eckersley has easily been the most dominant reliever in baseball. If he has another one or two years like this, he's in for sure. He may already be in."
Bill Madden, a columnist for the New York Daily News, and a Hall of Fame voter, recently wrote, "As for the Hall, Jeff Reardon may get there, but the most dominant reliever of our time -- and a Cooperstown cinch -- is Eckersley.
"When a dominant reliever comes into the game, fans [and opposing batters] consider the game over. Goose Gossage and Bruce Sutter had that kind of aura. You don't get that feeling with Reardon. You do with Eckersley."
Reardon, however, is the all-time saves leader at 345. So if he's not a lock because people aren't sure what to make of his record, then how does one evaluate Eckersley's accomplishments, achieved while performing in two distinctly different roles?
* He's one of five pitchers to save 100 games and win 100 games.
* He was a 20-game winner as a starter for Boston in 1978.
* He threw a 1-0 no-hitter against California in 1977.
* He's the only player with 100 saves and 100 complete games.
* He saved nine of the A's 12 AL playoff wins from 1988-90.
* His 0.61 ERA in 1990 was the lowest in major-league history for any pitcher with 25 or more innings pitched.
* Fastest to reach 200 saves.
* He's building on the record for consecutive saves in a season at 30 and overall at 34.
"Somebody mentioned the Hall of Fame to me the other day," Eckersley said. "I was really embarrassed. I'm flattered because if it hadn't been for relieving, that topic would never come up. I feel like I'm young again. Because for me, life began in 1987."