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Eck, as in wreck

He's sweating out Hall election results

Forgive Dennis Eckersley if he looks a bit weary after the Hall of Fame announces its 2004 election results today.

"I'm so excited, it's frightening," Eckersley said last night as he braced to hear whether he will be a first-ballot inductee in Cooperstown. "I haven't been able to sleep for a few days."

One of a kind during a 24-year career in which he distinguished himself as a top-rate starter and a world-class closer, Eckersley ranks with 3,000-hit-club member Paul Molitor as a leading candidate to join the greats whose likenesses grace bronze plaques in the Hall of Fame. He could help open the door for a new generation of relievers by becoming only the third pitcher inducted primarily for his work out of the bullpen. Rollie Fingers was elected in his second year of eligibility in 1992 after Hoyt Wilhelm prevailed in his eighth year on the ballot in '85.

"I don't want to come across as I expect to be elected, because there are so many great players who are not in," said Eckersley, who will await the results at his home in Sudbury. "I mean, who am I?"

As dominant a closer as the game ever has seen, for one thing. For nearly a decade after Oakland manager Tony LaRussa converted him to a closer in 1987, Eckersley set the standard on his way to posting 390 saves, the third most in history behind Lee Smith (478) and John Franco (424). By the time he ended his career with the Red Sox at age 44 after the 1998 season, Eckersley had appeared in 1,071 games, which only one pitcher in history has exceeded: Jesse Orosco (1,252).

But members of the Baseball Writers Association of America had much more to consider than the fruits of Eckersley's longevity. He helped lead the A's to three straight World Series from 1988-1990, won the American League MVP and Cy Young Awards in 1992, and was named to six All-Star teams from 1977 to '92.

Eckersley and Molitor head a class of 15 first-time candidates on the ballot, including sluggers Joe Carter and Cecil Fielder, and pitchers Dennis Martinez, Jimmy Key, and Dave Stieb.

The ballot features 18 returning candidates, most notably Jim Rice, Bruce Sutter, and Andre Dawson, each of whom appeared on more than 50 percent of ballots last year but fell short of the 75 percent needed for election. For Rice, it was his 10th year on the ballot.

Eckersley's candidacy follows a series of disappointments for proponents of electing relievers to the Hall. In addition to Sutter, who finished third last year to electees Eddie Murray and Gary Carter while appearing on 53.6 percent of the ballots, Smith fell short in his first year of eligibility, receiving support from 42.34 percent of the voters, and Rich Gossage garnered 42.14 percent in his fifth year on the ballot. Another accomplished reliever, Randy Myers, is eligible for the first time this year.

"This is incredible," Eckersley said of his anxiety. "Who knows how the writers will see it? I went through something like this with the Cy Young and MVP, but you had more of a sense of how it might go than something like this."

A brash kid after he was drafted out of Washington High in Fremont, Calif., by the Indians in 1972, Eckersley wasted little time making a name for himself once he reached the majors in 1975. He no-hit the Angels in 1977, and after the Indians traded him to the Sox in a deal for Rick Wise and Bo Diaz, Eckersley went 20-8 in 1978 in a rotation that included Mike Torrez, Luis Tiant, and Bill Lee on the Boston team that lost to the Yankees in the infamous one-game playoff.

With his signature look -- the long black hair, the mustache, and the perpetual tan -- Eckersley became a star in Boston, on and off the field. But after going 17-10 for the Sox in 1979, his performance declined as his reputation as a party animal grew. He spent four more seasons in the Hub before he was traded to the Cubs in 1984 for Bill Buckner.

The move may have helped Eckersley more than the Cubs since he finally hit bottom in his personal battle with alcohol and turned his life around after the '86 season. Then came a new opportunity for him in baseball, as he was traded to the A's in the first week of the '87 season and began his run of brilliance as a closer.

After Eckersley pitched nine years for the A's, he spent two seasons with the Cardinals before he returned to Boston for his last hurrah in '98, going 4-1 with one save and a 4.76 ERA in 50 appearances. Eckersley became the only pitcher in history with at least 100 complete games and 100 saves. He finished with a career record of 197-171, a 3.50 ERA, and a reputation as one of the great control pitchers of his time.

Still, he had a hard time sleeping.

"I'm definitely geared up," he said. "How could I not be?" . . .

The Sox lost their international scouting director, Louie Eljaua, to the Pirates. Eljaua, 34, who joined the Sox from the Marlins before the 2002 season, will serve as special assistant to Pittsburgh general manager Dave Littlefield. With the promotion, Eljaua will assist Littlefield much the way Bill Lajoie does Sox GM Theo Epstein, exerting considerable influence largely as a special major league scout. The move puts Eljaua on track toward becoming a general manager. He and Littlefield have been close since their days together in the Florida organization. The Sox are expected to leave Eljaua's position vacant as some of organization's top talent evaluators share his responsibilities . . . The Sox have yet to complete their major league coaching staff for next season. They have been interested in hiring former Anaheim manager Terry Collins as third base coach but were not sure they would receive permission from the Dodgers to interview him. Collins served the last two years as LA's minor league field coordinator.

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