February 13, 1996: A’s trade Dennis Eckersley to the Cardinals

Tony La Russa had yet to manage a game for the St. Louis Cardinals, but his Oakland connections were already paying dividends.

On February 13, 1996, the A’s traded Dennis Eckersley to St. Louis for minor-league reliever Steve Montgomery, making Eckersley the fourth former Athletics player alongside Mike Gallego, Rick Honeycutt, and Todd Stottlemyre to join the Cardinals since La Russa had been named manager in October.

That connection was specifically why Eckersley requested that he be traded to St. Louis after nine seasons in Oakland. As a 10-year veteran who had spent more than five seasons with the same team, Eckersley had the right to veto any trade.

“To be an effective closer, you have to have a manager who knows how to use you,” he said. “I’ve been with Tony for nine years and it’s pretty obvious.”[1]

Eckersley was a successful starting pitcher early in his career. After breaking into the majors as a 20-year-old with the Indians, Eckersley reeled off at least a dozen wins in each of his first six seasons. He was named to his first all-star game as a 22-year-old in 1977 and placed fourth in the American League Cy Young Award voting when he won 20 games in his first season with the Red Sox.

In 1984, Eckersley was traded with Mike Brumley to the Cubs for Bill Buckner. In 1984 and 1985 he won a combined 21 games for the Cubs with a 3.06 ERA. In 1986, however, his ERA ballooned to 4.57 as he went just 6-11. As the 1987 season began, the Cubs traded him to the Athletics, where La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan transitioned him to a new role: closer.

In 1988, Eckersley led the league with 45 saves, helping the A’s reach the World Series with a 2.35 ERA. After the season, he placed second in the Cy Young voting and fifth in the MVP voting. In 1989, he saved another 33 games and recorded the final three outs of Oakland’s World Series sweep over the Giants.

Eckersley’s accomplishments continued into the next decade. In 1990, his 48 saves outnumber the 45 baserunners he allowed, and in 1992 he won both the AL MVP and Cy Young awards.

In nine seasons with the A’s, Eckersley compiled 320 of his 323 career saves and posted a 2.74 ERA.

“What happened with Eckersley wouldn’t have happened with anyone else,” said Goose Gossage, who pitched for La Russa for two seasons. “Tony resurrected his career.”[2]

“Sure, he put me in the bullpen and made me a star, but there’s more to it than that,” Eckersley said. “I respect everything about him. Like his Animal Rescue Foundation. You don’t have to agree with him, but he stands up for what he believes. He’s like an older brother who has been around the world.”[3]

San Francisco Chronicle — February 14, 1996

Along the way, Eckersley had opportunities to leave Oakland for more lucrative contract offers. Instead, he chose to stay in Oakland with La Russa.[4]

“A person with a normal salary might think I’m crazy, but what’s the difference between $8 million or $9 million for two years?” Eckersley asked. “So it’s a couple hundred thousand a year, but I know who’s been buttering my bread, and it’s Tony.”[5]

The 41-year-old Eckersley was coming off three consecutive seasons with an ERA over 4.00, including a 4.83 ERA in 50 1/3 innings in 1995.

“I had a bad month,” Eckersley said. “When you have a bad month in relief, it can tear you up. When you’re 40 years old, people are going to say what they want to say and that’s fine. That’s all part of it.”[6]

“Eck has got plenty left physically,” La Russa said. “Mentally and emotionally, he’s still at the top of his game. He still gets as fired up and as nervous as he did. He wants to succeed so badly and that’s why he’s so consistent.”[7]

The Cardinals and A’s had worked on the deal for months, as the Cardinals wanted Oakland to pay part of Eckersley’s salary. In the end, the A’s agreed to pay $700,000 of Eckersley’s 1996 salary. The Cardinals would pay $500,000, and Eckersley agreed to defer the remaining $1 million until 1997.[8]

With the trade complete, La Russa said the Cardinals not only were filling their need for a closer after Tom Henke had all but officially retired, but they also obtained a role model for T.J. Mathews and John Frascatore to emulate. Mathews and Frascatore, both 26, were each considered potential future closers.

“Now a lot will depend on their attitude – how much they want to learn,” La Russa said. “If you’re sincere, Eck will talk to you, but Eck doesn’t like bull. Whether you’re a starter, middle reliever, or closer, our pitchers have been better for years just because they watch him.”[9]

In Oakland, the trade was just one more sign that times were changing after the team placed last in the American League West in 1995.

“From a team standpoint, it’s a sad day,” said Todd Van Poppel, one of the candidates to replace Eckersley as Oakland’s closer. “To me, Dennis Eckersley made the Oakland A’s. You’ll never see another A’s reliever do what he did. On the other hand, he’s going to a competitive team with a lot of his friends. For him, it’s probably a good move, but for the Oakland A’s it’s another hole we have to fill – a hole we haven’t had to fill for eight, nine years.”[10]

With the trade, the A’s projected 1996 payroll was $20.5 million, far below the $35 million figure the team spent in 1995.[11]

“If the circumstances had been different, I would have liked to finish (my career) in Oakland,” Eckersley said. “I will always be an A, but I don’t know if there will always be an Oakland A’s.”[12]

1996 Fleer Excel

In Montgomery, the A’s received a 6-foot-4 right-hander who had tied the Texas League record with 36 saves in 1995.[13]

“This is more to accommodate Dennis than to acquire Steve,” Alderson admitted. “This is what Dennis wanted. Given where we are, it was best for us too.”[14]

Montgomery pitched in 12 games for the A’s over two seasons, posting a 9.45 ERA in 20 innings. In 1998, he enjoyed the best season of his career with the Phillies, posting a 3.34 ERA and saving three games in 64 2/3 innings. After the season, he was traded to the Padres, where he threw just 5 2/3 innings in 2000, ending his major-league career.

Eckersley pitched two seasons in St. Louis, saving 30 games in 1996 and 36 in 1997. He appeared in 120 games and posted a 3.58 ERA in 113 innings. He played his final major-league season with the Red Sox in 1998 and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2004.


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[1] Rick Hummel, “Cards Get Eckersley To Teach And Pitch,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 14, 1996.

[2] Jerome Holtzman, “Mutual Admiration Society,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 5, 1996.

[3] Jerome Holtzman, “Mutual Admiration Society,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 5, 1996.

[4] Jerome Holtzman, “Mutual Admiration Society,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 5, 1996.

[5] Jerome Holtzman, “Mutual Admiration Society,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 5, 1996.

[6] Rick Hummel, “Cards Get Eckersley To Teach And Pitch,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 14, 1996.

[7] Rick Hummel, “Cards Get Eckersley To Teach And Pitch,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 14, 1996.

[8] Rick Hummel, “Deal For Eckersley Is Near,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 13, 1996.

[9] Rick Hummel, “Cards Get Eckersley To Teach And Pitch,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 14, 1996.

[10] Edvins Beitiks, “Eckersley: Nothing but A’s,” San Francisco Examiner, February 14, 1996.

[11] “Eckersley is traded to Cards,” San Francisco Examiner, February 13, 1996.

[12] Edvins Beitiks, “Eckersley: Nothing but A’s,” San Francisco Examiner, February 14, 1996.

[13] Edvins Beitiks, “Eckersley: Nothing but A’s,” San Francisco Examiner, February 14, 1996.

[14] Edvins Beitiks, “Eckersley: Nothing but A’s,” San Francisco Examiner, February 14, 1996.

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