Some athletes are so good they leave a permanent hole behind them. They set a standard of excellence so high, every athlete who tries to fill the same role, no matter how good, will suffer in comparison. They become, in our minds, the embodiment of perfection.
I can think of only five Bay Area athletes who, as I followed their careers, have made me feel that way:
Quarterback: Joe Montana
Free safety: Ronnie Lott
Power hitter: Barry Bonds
Leadoff hitter: Rickey Henderson
Relief pitcher: Dennis Eckersley
The A's have had some pretty good closers over the past few years. But I haven't really been able to enjoy them as much as I should have because, frankly, Dennis Eckersley has ruined it for me. Eckersley's five seasons from 1988-92 have totally spoiled me. Strikeonestriketwostrikethree. Oneouttwooutsthreeouts: shake hands, game over. Total dominance.
Baseball Prospectus once did a statistical study which determined that the 1990 Oakland A's had the best bullpen of all time. In fact, it was so good that even if you took Eckersley out of the equation, it was still the best bullpen ever. Throw in Eckersley's 0.61 ERA in 73 innings, and that bullpen outdistances everyone else by a huge margin.
So I guess I shouldn't totally blame Eckersley for my nervousness with every bullpen that has followed. Gene Nelson and Rick Honeycutt were a big part of those great teams, too. And they should get some props today, as Dennis Eckersley was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. They brought many of those saves to him. But Eck was king.
So congratulations to Dennis Eckersley: a well-deserved honor. And many thanks to Eck, Nelson and Honeycutt for making those years some of the most enjoyable years of my life as a baseball fan. You guys were unforgettable.