Good thing the baseball gods came to an afternoon truce with Mother Nature on Wednesday.
Dennis Eckersley’s color commentary on NESN’s broadcasts has been one of the few rays of sunlight during this lost Red Sox season.
It wouldn’t have been right if a rainout had denied one last game at Fenway before his retirement. It wouldn’t have been right if Red Sox fans had been denied one last chance to hear Eckersley’s incisive, candid, and often hilarious commentary, deployed via his unique lingo.
Eckersley announced in August that this, his 20th season as part of NESN’s broadcast team after a Hall of Fame 24-year playing career, would be his last. The news blindsided Red Sox fans, who were saddened by the death of popular color analyst Jerry Remy from cancer late last October but took some solace in the assumption that “Eck” would be part of the broadcasts for seasons to come.
“It’s nice to know that you are who you are, and you were who you were, and people appreciate you for that,” said Eckersley in a conversation outside the Fenway press box a few hours before Wednesday’s game. “This is my place. This is the constant. It’s where my heart is. But I’ve been in baseball for 50 years. Fifty years! For 50 years, it’s always about the next game, the next season. There’s no time to be a whole person.”
With the Red Sox season complete, there will be no lingering. In a few days, Eckersley and his wife, Jennifer, will move to the Bay Area in his native California so they can be closer to Eckersley’s daughter, Mandee, and her children. It’s time to be Grandpa Eck.
“It’s time to be that whole person,” he said, “and give myself fully to those that care about me. When you’re younger, you’re so focused on the moment, what’s going on with you, that maybe you don’t know any better. Now I know. I know what’s important.”
One of Eckersley’s most appealing attributes is his willingness to show vulnerability. He’s never been afraid of a poignant moment, whether telling an ill Remy that he loved him after catching his ceremonial first pitch exactly a year ago Wednesday, or being so clearly touched by Globe colleague Alex Speier’s heartfelt salute during Monday’s broadcast.
Saying goodbye Wednesday was not easy, not that he would have ever pretended that it was. Eckersley made the familiar drive up from Hingham, arriving at Fenway Park at approximately 12:30 p.m. As he made his way to the ballpark, he found himself reminiscing about his commutes during his early years as a Red Sox player and, in a certain way, how far he has come.
“My first year here I lived downtown, and I was late all the time,” he recalled. “It drove Zim [former manager Don Zimmer] nuts. My second year, in ‘79, I lived in Wayland, and I just remember getting off at Cambridge Allston and trying to get on Storrow. I would get so mad, and I was still always late, and Zim would be furious when I rolled in during batting practice or something. That was the true Boston experience, getting angry in traffic, right? I was just a kid, 24 years old, but I thought about that a lot today as I was driving in. I just tried to take it all in.
“And,” he added with a laugh, “it was smooth sailing. I didn’t have to curse anybody out.”
Eckersley said that memories of his first retirement from the Red Sox, as a player after the 1998 season, came to the forefront of his mind Wednesday morning. “It was a little different, but the emotions were similar,” he said. “I remember I was keeping it together pretty well, but then I was in a car with Mandee and my ex-wife, and this cassette popped in and just started blasting this song. It was Sarah McLachlan. Sarah McLachlan! I don’t even remember what song it was, but they were all sad. That crushed me.”
Eckersley’s arrival at the ballpark Wednesday was greeted by a NESN camera, which remained a few feet ahead of him as he made his way to the booth, a celebration with his colleagues soon to come. There was cake, and gifts, and a photo session. Red Sox owner John W. Henry and his wife, Linda, were among many who stopped by to share their appreciation.
There had already been tears before Eckersley got to Fenway, and there would be more, something he acknowledged to play-by-play voice Dave O’Brien in the early innings of the broadcast, which vacillated beautifully between game analysis, discussion on the state of the Sox, and reminiscences about their years together in the booth with Remy.
“I’ve been through the mill today,” said Eckersley.
“You’ve been a mess,” deadpanned O’Brien.
“I’ve been a mess,” agreed Eckersley.
His emotions were laid bare for all to see before the bottom of the fifth inning. As the video board showed highlights of his playing and broadcasting career, set to The Eagles’ “Take It To The Limit,” Red Sox and Rays personnel stepped out of the dugouts, looked up at the broadcast booth, applauded, and raised their caps.
Eckersley began to cry. After a few beats, he said, “Unreal. This is your life.” A few beats later, he continued. “I’ve never been touched more in my life. You never realize how blessed you are.”
When Matt Barnes retired Ji-Man Choi on a fly ball to center field to close a 6-3 victory, the Red Sox season was complete, and so too was Eckersley’s time in the booth. O’Brien told him how much he appreciated their friendship. Then Eckersley, tears welling but a smile creasing his face, thanked Boston, vowed that he would return to Fenway next season for Legends Suite obligations, and bid farewell.
“This is a special, special day, and I will never forget it,” he said. “Thank you, Red Sox, NESN, and all the gang. Have a good one. I will.”
A few minutes later, he left the NESN booth, only to find a press box worth of reporters lining the hallway, waiting to say goodbye. He hugged or shook hands with each one, a round of applause following him to the elevator.
It was a lovely final scene. But then, Eck always was an excellent closer.
Read more about Dennis Eckersley
- From 2019: ‘I got lucky, man.’ Dennis Eckersley on surviving his tough times
- What the heck is The Eck talking about? A guide to his unique vocabulary
- Video: A guide to Dennis Eckersley’s baseball lingo
- From August: Dennis Eckersley will retire from NESN booth at season’s end
- Dennis Eckersley — and his unique style — will be hard to replace for NESN
- From 2021: Eck speaks his mind, from the heart, in a voice all his own
- Watch: Globe reporter Alex Speier shares touching tribute to retiring Dennis Eckersley