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Bad Decisions: Trading Dennis Eckersley
He’d been struggling so far that season, batting just .224 with 3 homers entering the game. It was a disappointing start, well below the team’s expectations. Manning hit .285 as a rookie two years earlier, and .292 the year before, while winning a Gold Glove. He was viewed by the club as a building block to their future, so his slow start in 1977 was a concern.
But on that night, against such pitching castoffs as Dave Pagan, Bill Laxton and Mike Kekich, Manning was finally having the kind of game the club had been hoping for. He led off the game with a single off Pagan, and later scored the game’s first run. One inning later, he singled again, driving in Cleveland’s second run. In the fourth inning, he came up with the score tied and two and two runners on and blasted a 3-run homer to deep right field off Laxton. After grounding out in the sixth, he collected his fourth hit of the night in the eighth, a single off Kekich.
What happened next changed his life, and that of quite a few other people, too.
Manning tried to steal second base. While diving headfirst into the bag, he injured his back. It wasn’t clear exactly what the injury was at first, but he knew something was wrong. He played in the next three games, but went just 2-for-13 and the back really started bothering him, so he sat out the rest of the team’s road trip.
Once back in Cleveland, Manning still didn’t feel right. He tried to play against the Rangers, but struck out in his only at-bat and immediately left the game. Doctors started really examining him closely and finally found the problem - he’d broken a vertebra in his lower back on that dive. No surgery would be needed, but he had to be in a back brace for six weeks to ensure it healed.
Manning’s best friend at the time was his teammate, pitcher Dennis Eckersley. They’d both been drafted by Cleveland as 17-year olds, taken two rounds apart in 1972. Both were sent to play for Reno that year and the next, and were back together in Cleveland once they were called up in 1975. Knowing his friend lived alone and needed help in order to rest and heal properly, Eckersley and his wife, Denise*, offered to have Manning move into their home as he recovered.
(*Yes, Dennis Eckersley was married to a woman named Denise. I need to be very careful with my typos at this point, or I’ll be telling a completely different story.)
Sometime during this recovery period, Manning began having an affair with Denise Eckersley.
Later, reports would indicate that the Cleveland front office found out about this situation sometime before the 1978 season began. General Manager Phil Seghi decided that the situation needed to be diffused before it destroyed the chemistry in the clubhouse. He resolved to trade either Manning or Eckersley.
Now, it’s probably worth pausing at this point to look at how each of these guys had performed to this point in their careers:
Manning: In 326 games, his batting line was .277/.330/.369. He had virtually no power, just 14 total homers at that point. His calling card, offensively, was supposed to be speed, and he did have 44 steals, but he’d also been caught stealing 26 times. A 63% success rate on steals is, uh, non-good. Overall, he was sort of a middling offensive player with decent contact skills. His career OPS+ to that point was 101, almost exactly league-average. His defense, though good (+6 fielding runs total) was a bit overrated. He’s averaged 2.2 WAR per season, which made him a perfectly average major league starting outfielder. He’d batted just .226 in 1977, and broken his back. It was his worst year so far. He’d also had an affair with his best friend’s wife.
Eckersley: Had a career won-lost record of 40-32, which is better than it looks because the Indians were a pretty bad team. When Eckersley started, the team was 47-40, a .540 winning percentage. When anyone else started, the team was 184-208, a .469 winning percentage. His ERA of 3.23 was 16% better than the league average. He’d made the All-Star team in 1977, and threw a no-hitter. It was his best year so far. He’d also been the victim of his best friend having an affair with his wife.
So, with these facts available to him, Seghi decided to trade Eckerlsey. He sent him to the Red Sox on March 30, 1978, in exchange for a package of four players.
From a strictly baseball perspective, you can maybe, sort of, kind of see where it would make sense. Manning’s trade value was at its lowest point, and Eckersely’s was at its highest. He was simply going to bring back more talent than Manning would. Plus, apparently Eckersley’s sidearm throwing motion made the team a little nervous, thinking he was likely going to hurt himself. That seems silly now, since sidearm is actually a more natural arm motion than overhand, and since his health was being compared to a guy who had literally broken his back already, but that’s the excuse they gave.
They couldn’t give the real reason, because apparently Eckersley wasn’t aware of the affair yet. It’s not clear how the front office knew and Eckersely didn’t, but Peter Gammons wrote in Sports Illustrated that Eckersley learned he was traded on the same day his wife told him she wanted a divorce, and he didn’t find out until three months later that the Manning affair was the reason why.
Regardless of the upheaval in his personal life, Eckersley went on to have a great season. He won 20 game for the Red Sox, with a 2.99 ERA. He won 84 games for Boston over the next 6+ years, making another All-Star team and totaling 21.7 WAR. He ultimately moved on the the Cubs and the A’s, where he became the best reliever in baseball and eventually was elected to the Hall of Fame.
The Indians, one the other hand, not only were without their 23-year old ace, but they now had a clubhouse that knew one of their teammates had an affair with his best friend’s wife. Even if Manning had returned to the level of play he’d displayed before breaking his back, that wasn’t going to be a happy clubhouse.
Manning never did return to that level. His OPS+ was 101 before the injury and just 79 after it. He never again won a Gold Glove, or anything else for that matter, and was eventually traded to the Brewers. The players Cleveland received in return for Eckersley were:
Rick Wise - He led the AL in losses in 1978, and had a record of 24-29 in his two seasons in Cleveland before leaving as a free agent.
Mike Paxton - Had a good year in 1978, with a 12-11 record and 3.86 ERA, but then was terrible in the following two years, with a combined ERA of 6.24. He never pitched in the majors again after that.
Bo Díaz - Played parts of four seasons in Cleveland. He was pretty awful for the first three, hitting .224/.249/.322, with just 5 homers in 135 games, but he won the starting catching job in 1981 and made the All-Star team as he batted .313. Seghi immediately packaged him in a trade to the Phillies that brought back three pitchers who combined to go 22-26 with a 4.87 ERA.
Ted Cox - He was supposed to be the prize of the trade, a 23-year old third baseman who had hit .362 in a handful of game for the Red Sox the year before, after hitting .334 in Triple A. The problem was that the Indians already had Buddy Bell playing third base, so Cox was bounced between third and left field and DH, all while batting just .233 with one homer. Still, that was enough to convince Seghi to trade away Bell, who promptly made 4 All-Star teams and won 6 straight Gold Gloves in Texas while Cox continued to flounder. After hitting just .212, he was traded to the Mariners for two guys who never played in Cleveland and a reliever, Bud Anderson, who had a couple of middling years in their bullpen while Eckersley was turning into a Hall of Famer.
In essence, Seghi made a terrible decision in trading Eckersley without getting anything like fair value in return, AND made a bad decision in the trade return for Díaz a few years later, AND made the mistake of betting on Cox over Bell just before Bell blossomed into a star, AND made a terrible decision in keeping Manning when the news about the affair was undoubtedly going to reach the clubhouse eventually.
Seghi should always be remembered, and given credit, for being the first GM to hire a Black manager when he brought Frank Robinson in to manage the team after the 1974 season. Kudos to him for that.
But there’s a reason why the Indians had only 3 winning seasons in Seghi’s 13 years as their general manager. He just wasn’t very good at the job.
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