DH and closer roles triggered mid-career revivals for Cooperstown's newest members.
By MARC TOPKIN
Published January 7, 2004
The way they started, there was no reason to think they'd get anywhere near Cooperstown. Paul Molitor was an oft-injured infielder for the small-market Brewers, Dennis Eckersley a so-so starter whose biggest battle was with alcoholism.
But a change of roles midway through their careers changed their paths, Molitor becoming one of the game's most prolific designated hitters while piling up 3,319 hits and Eckersley redefining the closer's role and accumulating 390 saves.
And Tuesday, they found out they are headed to baseball's ultimate destination, the Hall of Fame.
Both were elected in their first year of eligibility, Molitor named on 431 of the 506 ballots (85.2 percent) cast by members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, Eckersley on 421 (83.2).
A player must be named on 75 percent of the ballots (380) to be elected. Ryne Sandberg finished third with 309 votes, followed by Bruce Sutter (301), Jim Rice (276), Andre Dawson (253), Rich Gossage (206) and Lee Smith (185).
Tampa's Wade Boggs, who finished his stellar career with the Devil Rays in 1999, will make his first appearance on the ballot in December.
Molitor is the first player elected who played more games at DH (1,174 of 2,683) than any other position. Eckersley is only the third reliever to be voted in by the writers, joining Hoyt Wilhelm and Rollie Fingers.
Though both Molitor and Eckersley knew there was a strong chance they'd be elected, both were emotional Tuesday afternoon when finally getting the call.
"I don't think it's a moment you can really plan for," Molitor said in a conference call. "This whole thing, getting the call, it's like an out-of-body experience. Seeing my plaque in Cooperstown will give me the same kind of feeling."
"I need to regroup here; I feel like a child," Eckersley said. "It's the most overwhelming experience I've ever felt in my life. I don't think I ever even dreamt of it. I just dreamt of being in the big leagues."
Molitor was a strong offensive player from the start of his 21-year career, but he had trouble staying in the lineup due to assorted injuries. He became a DH primarily in 1991, at age 34, and had three more 200-plus hit seasons before retiring in 1998.
He ranks eighth on the all-time hit list, posting a .306 career average with 1,782 runs and 1,307 RBIs for the Brewers, Blue Jays and Twins while being selected for seven All-Star Games and compiling a 39-game hitting streak.
"There were a lot of times I wasn't the best player on the field," Molitor said. "But there is something about doing things over a long period of time and trying to do things the right way that eventually led to this."
Eckersley was a decent starter, winning 149 games (and losing 130) over 12 seasons and pitching a no-hitter for Cleveland in 1977. But his career changed when he went through alcohol rehabilitation in January 1987, was traded from the Cubs to the A's that April and was converted to a ninth-inning specialist.
Eckersley went on to become the game's most dominant closer for most of a decade, including 48 saves and a 0.61 ERA in 1990 and a remarkable 1992 season when he went 7-1 with a 1.91 ERA and a league-high 51 saves and won the AL Cy Young and MVP awards.
"I started, I got sober, I relieved," Eckersley said. "The timing was incredible."
He pitched for 24 years, finishing with a 197-171 record and 3.50 ERA while ranking third on the all-time saves list behind Lee Smith and John Franco.
"There's no way I would have gotten into the Hall just strictly as a reliever," Eckersley said. "Being a starter had to have something to do with distancing me from some of the other relievers."
Pete Rose, who used this week to help his own chances for enshrinement by making a highly publicized admission that he bet on baseball, received 15 write-in votes.
"I am a little disappointed in the timing of it," Molitor said. "Does it take away from the current class? ... In my mind, I think it does a little bit."
- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.