Cardinals closer is young at heart Eckersley giddy over another shot in postseason


SAN DIEGO -- Dennis Eckersley turned 42 on Thursday. He is not exactly in the middle of a mid-life crisis.

His hair is rock-star long. And as jet-black as a teen-ager's. You have to look very hard for a gray hair -- or a deep wrinkle. He looks as if he just stepped out of a tanning salon or a health club.

Eckersley looks so young because he likes his job. Especially at this time of year. Walking onto a field before 50,000 fans and protecting a late-inning lead might sound pretty stressful.

Eckersley is having the time of his life. As a result, he probably has added more time to his career.

He saved two big postseason games for the St. Louis Cardinals, who find themselves just one victory from eliminating the San Diego Padres in this National League Division Series. The teams played Game 3 last night at Jack Murphy Stadium.

"It's tense," Eckersley said. "But it's sure fun when you win."

Not long ago, he was being booed by the Cardinals' fans. When he retired the Padres in order in the ninth inning Thursday, they cheered him as if he were a civic hero. As recently as the middle of the season, they were ready to run him out of town.

"I'll tell you what," he said. "You don't feel 42 when the crowd is electric like that. It was humming out there."

He had saved the first game of the series by getting the dangerous Tony Gwynn to hit a sizzling grounder that wound up in his glove, and he waved the ball at Gwynn.

And Eckersley says he has been trying to behave himself.

"I know how precious it is to win and how devastating it is to lose," Eckersley said. "To be at my age and have the opportunity again, I just know how much more precious it is. I'm just trying to hold onto all this stuff until we get it done, and then I'll tell you exactly how I feel."

Tony La Russa, the Cardinals' manager, acquired Eckersley in February from the Oakland Athletics for a pitcher named Steve Montgomery. La Russa and Eckersley had been together for nine years.

Eckersley wound up on the disabled list for three weeks with an inflamed right elbow. He returned to save 20 of 22 games as the Cardinals won the NL Central. Now, they are one victory from the NL Championship Series. It would be Eckersley's sixth league championship series.

"He looks so smooth, like he's been doing it forever," St. Louis reliever T.J. Mathews said.

Eckersley has been around the big leagues for so long -- 22 years -- that it is hard to remember that he started his career as a starting pitcher. He made his first postseason appearance as a starting pitcher for the Cubs, allowing five runs in five and one-third innings in Game 3 of the 1984 NLCS. Chicago lost, 7-1, and lost the best-of-five series in five games.

"I can't blank everything out," he said. "I just know how devastating it was. You don't forget the ter-rible things that happen. I didn't have as much to do with it back then. I just blew the one game."

Now he is back in the postseason again with his former A's teammate, Rick Honeycutt. Eckersley talks of how special it would be to come up with a fairy-tale ending for the two 42-year-olds.

But then he stops.

"I don't want to get too giddy here," Eckersley said, as if the ride is far from its last milepost.

Pub Date: 10/06/96

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