COOPERSTOWN, N.Y -- This was his first visit to the Hall of Fame ("I didn't come here on purpose, because I didn't want to jinx anything"), and Dennis Eckersley was being given a private tour of the premises by chief curator Ted Spencer, a courtesy the Hall extends to its newest electees. This was not simply baseball under glass. Eckersley was taken down to the basement, where he was given the right to hold history in his hands. Ty Cobb's glove. A nailed-together bat that once belonged to Babe Ruth. Rube Waddell's shillelagh. The battered trombone case in which actor Robert Redford, as Roy Hobbs, carried "Wonderboy," his preternatural bat, in "The Natural."
"A Kirk Gibson bat," Eckersley cracked, invoking, not for the only time this day, the crippled Dodgers slugger whose home run off Eckersley did not define a career but gave it an inescapable reference point. "A miracle bat. The ball jumps off it."
On a small table, Spencer showed Eckersley some of the artifacts of his career already in the Hall's possession. The Indians cap he wore when he pitched a no-hitter against Frank Tanana and the California Angels on May 30, 1977. "Look at this, five bucks for a ticket," Eckersley said, picking up the stub from that game.
The A's cap he was wearing in 1992 when he collected his 300th save (he finished with 390, ranking third all-time). The Red Sox jersey he wore for the final time in 1998, the year he retired, setting a record for pitching appearances that since has been broken by Jesse Orosco.
He posed for pictures near the plaques of Rollie Fingers, the A's reliever who preceded him into the Hall of Fame; Catfish Hunter, the storied A's pitcher of the '70s whom Eckersley faced as a starter for the Indians and Red Sox; and Giants ace Juan Marichal, a hero of his childhood spent in Fremont, Calif., where Eckersley adopted a modified version of Marichal's legendary high leg kick.
"Look at that coat and hat," Eckersley said, admiring a photo of Babe Ruth in full-length mink coat. "He was stylin'."
A baseball from his no-hitter was displayed, accompanied by a baseball card of a clean-shaven Eck more than a quarter-century removed from the man who will turn 50 Oct. 3.
"That's not the way I looked when I threw the no-hitter," he said. "That's my rookie card. When I threw the no-hitter, I had a real tired mustache."
Eckersley and his companion, Jennifer Szoke, sat in the Hall's cozy theater for a sneak preview of the video the Hall put together for his July 25 induction. There was Don Zimmer, his manager with the Red Sox. "This guy could close his eyes and throw strikes," Zim said.
Tony La Russa, who managed Eck in both Oakland and St. Louis: "He was always ready to pitch, always ready to compete, and never made excuses."
Buddy Bell, who roomed with him in Cleveland, at the start of his wild and crazy days, commenting on Eckersley's unique vocabulary: "You know how a young infant starts talking, and nobody understands him except his parents? That's like how we were with Eck."
And Eck, in his own words: "I tried to intimidate. I tried to look at guys and unnerve them, let them know I was boss."
Later, over lunch, he said that if there was one regret about his career, it was that he was unable to appreciate so much of it at the time. "It was horrible," he said. "I didn't enjoy a lot of it."
No more. "I've never been more real in my life," he said. "Being able to reflect, I feel very clear now about things. Now I can go on to the next part of my life.
"I had a hard time retiring. Now I can reflect and savor these moments as much as I can."
He is putting together his guest list for the induction. He's hoping his parents will be there, though his father, Wally, is 73 and has emphysema ("We'll figure it out," he said). Former teammate Scott Sanderson, whom Eckersley called The Senator. ("Because he was perfect.") La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan, if they can get away from the Cardinals for a day. Wally Haas, the former owner of the A's. Dave Perron, a former grade-school teacher who came to work for the A's marketing department, now oversees Michael Milken's prostate cancer foundation, and is one of Eck's closest friends. Jim Corsi, his teammate on the A's and Red Sox and now a neighbor.
He told hilarious stories, as only he can do. Rickey Henderson, enraging him by strolling down to first base, literally admiring his own shadow. Jose Canseco, fancying himself a pitcher, wondering how much he could make if he hit 35 home runs and won 20 games, too. Fans phoning in on last year's NESN postgame show and calling him "mullet head." "They were talking about my moss," Eckersley said about his trademark tresses. "What did they think, that I was going to cut my hair to do the show?" Thinking that a reporter was at his door on the day he was awaiting the call from the Hall, not knowing that Szoke had arranged a surprise visit by Perron. "I'm thinking, `Bob Hohler, how did he find my house? I'll kill him,' " Eckersley said. He talked about Bell's insight shared in the video that, underneath it all, Eckersley was nowhere near as cocky as he acted. "Buddy picked up on it," he said. But then, he said, he remembered the transformation that took place when the bullpen gate opened at the Oakland Coliseum and he went into the game.
"They'd be playing `Bad to the Bone,' and if you weren't thinking that you were bad to the bone, running into the game you became that," he said. "It was like the movie, `Major League,' with the music. You became that guy. It was like magic. That's what I remember, it being incredibly magical."
For Eckersley, there was nothing sweeter yesterday than hearing what fellow Hall of Famer Eddie Murray said in paying tribute to him.
"He doesn't say much, but it meant a lot," said Eckersley. "He said, `When you looked out there [at the mound], you knew he wanted you.'
"That's me. That's what I want said about me. That's it. That epitomizes me. I remember Yaz saying the same thing. He said, `You take him deep with a fastball, the next time he'll be throwing you the same fastball.' Maybe there's some stupidity there, but I went at [hitters]. You know what? I got beat up. I styled. If you have a problem with that, so be it. I cried in enough beer. I can style."
The Gibson home run in the 1988 World Series? It never took as great a toll on him as people believed, he said.
"I was in a great place, a wonderful place in my life," said Eckersley. "I think God gave it to me. It didn't have as much impact as people believed. Poor Dennis? To come from the depths of where I'd been?
"I was sober two years, making big iron [Eckspeak for lots of money], and my career was going that way [pointing up]. The home run? It just was."
And besides, Eckersley said, now he's had his ticket punched in Cooperstown.
"It's part of me," he said. "I accept it. No big deal. I went all through that thing. It's part of history."
He grinned a wicked grin.
"And I'm in the Hall of Fame."