Drafted as a shortstop, Mark Eichhorn was initially a starting pitcher in the minors, but an injured arm led to the development of a submarine style that featured a release point so low to the ground that it became a nightmare for right-handed batters. His new delivery would lead to him becoming the set-up man for Tom Henke from 1986 to 1988, and two World Series rings over an 11-year major-league career.
Mark Anthony Eichhorn was born on November 21, 1960, in San Jose, California. His father, Bob, and his mother, Rita (née Firebaugh), made their home south of San Jose in the Santa Cruz County coastal city of Watsonville. Bob served in the famed 101st Airborne during World War II1 and had a 30-year career with the US Postal Service. Rita had a long career as a nurse.2
During his early baseball life Mark was the classic youth baseball combination of a shortstop with a powerful arm who could also dominate when on the mound. At Watsonville High School, he was told he could do only one or the other, and Eichhorn wanted to play every day. So he became a star shortstop for the Wildcatz. He still pitched in the summer for youth teams, and during his senior season in high school was allowed to pitch occasionally.3 Eichhorn stood 6-feet-3 at the time and was also the tallest member of the basketball team. A point guard, he earned honorable mention All-Santa Cruz County honors his senior year.4
It was Eichhorn’s prowess at shortstop that first got the attention of scouts when the Wildcatz met North Salinas High School in a key game played before a crowd that included several big-league scouts. The scouts weren’t there to see Eichhorn. They were there to study the star pitcher of the opposition, Steve Raine.5
On May 16, 1978, the two prep stars dueled each other during an eight-inning, 1-0 North Salinas win. Eichhorn matched Raine on the mound that day and accounted for three of the Wildcatz’ five hits.6 One of the scouts there that day represented the Blue Jays. Raine was drafted first by the Giants, and later by the Royals, and pitched for three seasons in the Royals chain.
Eichhorn ended his senior year as an All-Monterey Bay League and All-County selection, hitting .369 and sporting a 0.39 ERA on the mound.7
In the January 1979 supplemental draft, Toronto chose Eichhorn as a shortstop as a second-round pick, 30th overall. He was the first Watsonville High player ever selected in a major-league draft and the highest pick of any player out of Santa Cruz County at the time.9
Instead of signing, Eichhorn ended up starting at shortstop for his local community college, Cabrillo, that spring. At Cabrillo College, he never took to the mound. In June, he received a phone call. He was told to come to Watsonville High School with a catcher and take some bullpen. He showed up at the school with his high-school catcher and his bat, just in case.10
Eichhorn’s first professional stop was the Blue Jays Rookie-level team in Medicine Hat, Alberta, where laborious 12-hour bus rides to cities like Idaho Falls were the norm. At the time, the right-hander was the ace of the staff, but still saw himself as a shortstop. “In my heart, I was a shortstop,” he said. “I would upset the coaches because I would take infield. Our shortstop was Fred Manrique, I thought I was as good as him.”12
In the Florida Instructional League that fall, Eichhorn decided to show his coaches that he could hit, too, by taking some batting practice. “And they yelled at me to get out (of) there,” Eichhorn told the Santa Cruz Sentinel on March 2, 1980. “I keep telling them I can hit,” he said.13
The 1980 season was spent in the Class-A Carolina League at Kinston in what Eichhorn termed a breakout year. He was 14-10 with a 3.54 ERA. Also that season Eichhorn realized he probably wasn’t a professional shortstop after all. Watching a slick-fielding 18-year-old named Tony Fernandez perform changed his mind. But the season brought a promotion to Double-A Knoxville (Southern League), where Eichhorn went 10-14 with a 3.98 ERA. “I had a bad first half, but I managed to turn it around in the second,” he said.14
It may have seemed like a dream come true for Eichhorn, but there was a problem. His arm was ailing. “I already felt my arm was on the way down. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t say anything,” he said.16
He made his major-league debut on August 30, 1982, against the Baltimore Orioles at Exhibition Stadium. It was his first of seven starts for the Blue Jays. He took the loss, pitching 4⅔ innings and giving up five runs in the Blue Jays’ 6-3 loss. He gave up six hits, including a third-inning home run by John Lowenstein.
Eichhorn was “roughed up”17 in his third start, before a large group of family and friends at the Oakland Coliseum. He gave up five hits and three runs in two innings and his Santa Cruz County fans gave him a standing ovation as he walked to the dugout after being pulled from the game.18 The Blue Jays rallied to win the game.
Eichhorn told Widmar everything was fine, took the mound, and proceeded to take a perfect game into the seventh. “I had it that day,” Eichhorn said. “I had a low-90s fastball, and on that day it was probably just high-80s. My arm was cranky, but it worked well for me that day.”20 Eichhorn left with the game tied, 2-2, but the Mariners touched reliever Dale Murray for a run in the ninth to win the game, 3-2.
Eichhorn finished his first big-league stint with a record of 0-3, with a 5.45 ERA. He struggled over the next two seasons, in 1983 in Syracuse and splitting time between Knoxville and Syracuse in 1984. By August of 1984, there was talk of Eichhorn having a future in the Blue Jays organization – as a coach. “I thought it could be the end of my career, but I knew I wasn’t done,” Eichhorn remembered.21
Eichhorn was sleeping in on a Sunday at a Howard Johnson’s in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, when the phone rang at 9 A.M. It was pitching coach Larry Hardy. As Eichhorn recalled, “He said, ‘Hey, Eich, do you have a glove in your room?’ I said yes, and he asked me to meet him in the back lawn area of the hotel. So, here we are on the back lawn of a Howard Johnson’s with the backup catcher and Hardy says, ‘Your arm has been shot, but you were drafted as a shortstop and threw at different angles, he mentioned Dan Quisenberry. He asked me to drop down and throw and asked how it felt. I told him I didn’t feel anything.
“That night, we were losing 8-0, and I was warming up, I was called in and he signaled me to lower my arm. Well, I faced three hitters: groundball to third base, groundball to shortstop, groundball to third. When I got to the dugout the guys were yelling and high-fiving. I said, ‘That’s the first time in, I don’t know, two years that I got three guys out in a row!’”22
It didn’t take long for Eichhorn to learn that the Blue Jays were liking what they were hearing about his new pitching style. “They asked me what I thought about going to instructional league, and I said it was fine,” he said.23
“At this point the Twins were interested in signing me to a minor-league deal. I let Toronto know, and they said, ‘We will do you one better and invite you to spring training.’ I was basically the last guy on the roster, but I didn’t give up any runs that spring,” said Eichhorn.24
Eichhorn’s new arsenal now featured an extremely slow changeup, a slider, and his out pitch – a huge splitter. After more seasoning in the minors, Eichhorn was back in the big leagues in 1986. The season was his finest. He had a career-high 14 wins with six losses. Eichhorn also had career bests of 157 innings pitched and 166 strikeouts, yielded just 105 hits, and gave up just 45 walks. Right-handed batters hit only .135/.186/.165 against him.
There was one further career best, an ERA of 1.72. Eichhorn often pitched as many as three innings, including six in one game. Manager Jimy Williams offered him the chance to start one of the season’s final games to get the six or so innings needed to become eligible for the ERA title.
“When we fell out of the race, I was the story. The reporters were showing up at my locker after games, asking about my ERA. I was really self-conscious about it. I really didn’t want the attention. That whole last month of the season, it was the last thing I wanted to talk about. Jimy did come to me and ask if I wanted to start, but I said no. To me, it felt selfish to do that,” he said.25
Had Eichhorn not spent some time on the disabled list that season, he might have won the ERA title after all. Still, 1986 was a very good year for him. The Sporting News named him the 1986 Rookie Pitcher of the Year. He finished sixth in the Cy Young Award voting and third in the Rookie of the Year Award voting, just behind Jose Canseco and Wally Joyner.
The following season was solid, too. Eichhorn pitched in a career-high and AL-leading 89 games, going 10-6 with a 3.17 ERA. His strikeouts were down to 96 and he walked 52 while giving up 110 hits in 127⅔ innings. In 1988 he was sent to Syracuse after the All-Star break along with David Wells. It was apparently a move by Jimy Williams to shake up the Blue Jays staff.26
In March 1989 Eichhorn’s contract was purchased by Atlanta. He had been assigned to Syracuse after spring training. The Braves were looking for bullpen help and paid a $50,000 waiver fee for his services.27 Again, he split time between Triple A with Richmond and the majors. He was brilliant in Richmond, going 1-0 with a 1.32 ERA and 19 saves. With the Braves he was 5-5 with a 4.35 ERA over 45 games. He was released by Atlanta and signed a free-agent deal with the California Angels in December.
Eichhorn’s first stint with the Angels was a successful one. He said, “I credit pitching coach Marcel Lachemann with reviving my career. He asked me, ‘What made you successful in ’86?’ I answered the slider and mostly the splitter, and he told me to work on the splitter.”28
Eichhorn achieved a career-high 13 saves during the 1990 season, going 2-5 with a 3.08 ERA. In 1991 he was 3-3 with a 1.98 ERA and one save in 70 appearances. In 1992 things were going well in Anaheim again. By late July, Eichhorn had made 42 appearances for the Angels, going 2-4 with a 2.38 ERA.
It was just one day before the trade deadline and Eichhorn was on an airplane when he learned he would be returning to Canada. “We were on the plane, heading to Texas,” Eichhorn said. “I was playing cards, when interim manager John Wathan (Buck Rodgers had injured his leg in a bus accident and did not travel with the team) came up and said, ‘Whitey Herzog (the club’s director of player personnel at the time) wants to talk to you.’ That’s how I learned I was traded.” The Angels got outfielder Rob Ducey and catcher Greg Myers in the deal.29
When he returned to the card game, his teammates were curious. “They asked, ‘Where are you going?’ They guessed just about all the teams, but Toronto,” laughed Eichhorn.30
The idea of returning to Toronto was exciting to Eichhorn. First there was the city itself, “I loved Toronto. It was an exciting city. My favorite city. The people are so nice. When you walked around the city, people knew who you were, and treated you so well,” Eichhorn recalled.31
Then there was the club that the Blue Jays brain trust had assembled. At the time of the trade the Jays were tied with the Athletics with the best record in baseball at 60-41. Said Eichhorn: “I came to the team late in the season, but wow. It was the most talented team I had ever been a part of. You had a Hall of Famer at leadoff, a Hall of Famer batting second, Hall of Famers all over. And I had been on some talented teams. But you gotta have chemistry. You don’t win the whole thing without chemistry.
“And Cito manager Cito Gaston just knew how to handle players. He trusted his players. He was soft-spoken, quiet, proud, careful with what he said, and when he did speak, you listened. The players wanted to win for each other, for Toronto, and they wanted to win for him.”32
Down the stretch of the 1992 season, Eichhorn made 23 appearances for the Jays, going 2-0.
In the postseason, he pitched in the ninth inning of Game Five of the ALCS, a 6-2 loss to Oakland. He threw 11 pitches and faced three batters. He again took the mound in Game Five of the World Series loss to the Braves, facing three batters, and striking out one on 14 pitches.
Two days after the Jays’ World Series victory, Eichhorn was interviewed by his hometown Santa Cruz Sentinel. He had just attended the victory parade in Toronto in front of over 250,000 fans. “As I’m talking right now, I’m still that high. It really hasn’t sunk in yet; the feeling is indescribable. It was a first-class parade. The reaction is unbelievable. There had to be a half a million people. This is a big day for Canada.”33
In 1993 Eichhorn enjoyed a full season with the defending champions, going 3-1 in 54 appearances. His ERA was 2.72. He struck out 47, while allowing 22 walks.
Once again the Blue Jays won the World Series and once again Eichhorn pitched some postseason innings. In Game Three of the ALCS, a 6-1 loss to the White Sox, he entered the game in the seventh inning. He faced eight hitters in two innings of work, surrendering one hit while walking one and striking out one.
In the Blue Jays’ Game Two World Series loss to the Phillies, he pitched a third of an inning, giving up a hit and a walk. For him it was a memorable effort, but it was lost on some. “In 1994 I was with the Orioles. I see Cito. We shake hands and he says, ‘You know I regret not getting you into that second series,’” laughed Eichhorn. “He hadn’t remembered it, but I was touched that he thought to say that to me. That too was a special team.”34
Eichhorn had signed a free-agent deal with Baltimore in December 1993. With the Orioles he was 6-5 with one save in 43 games. Rotator cuff surgery on February 5, 1995, led to his missing the entire season. The rest of the year was spent rehabbing his pitching arm.
Eichhorn started working out with fellow Santa Cruz County major leaguers Glenallen Hill and Tom Urbani in early 1996.35 The work led to tryouts with the Blue Jays and Giants, where he threw for 15 or 20 minutes as manager Dusty Baker looked on.36 Finally, on February 6, 1996, Eichhorn signed with the Angels. He went 1-2 with 24 appearances for Anaheim with a 5.04 ERA.
Eichhorn left the game – well, the American game anyway. He was coaching and conducting clinics in the Santa Cruz area in 1997 when he learned of a chance to return to the mound in Taiwan. The overseas adventure was short-lived; he missed his family, and a line drive to the head ended his two months in Taiwan.37 Eichhorn again spent time coaching and conducting clinics. He even played shortstop again in a 35-and-over league,38 but at the age of 37, he attempted a return to the major leagues, signing with Tampa Bay. He was 5-3 with 3.88 ERA and 18 saves for Triple-A Durham. “I was healthy again. With side-armers it can come and go, but I had it in Durham,” said Eichhorn.39 Then tendinitis in the elbow forced him to walk away from the game again.40
Still he wasn’t done. After a failed December 1999 tryout with the Dodgers, Eichhorn was back in the Blue Jays family again following a tryout in June 2000.41 He made a total of 22 appearances with Dunedin and Syracuse. “At that point it was a struggle to be on the road,” he said “In August I was hearing that I would be a September call-up, but I decided to retire. I had three kids at the time, my wife was pregnant with number four. I had been there, done that.”42
In all, Mark and his wife Mariann, whom he met during spring training in 1987,43 have five children – four sons and a daughter: Kevin born in 1990, Brian (1991), Steven (1995), Sarah (1999), and David (2001). Kevin was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks. Despite arm issues, he pitched for seven seasons in the minors, 2008-2014.
In 2002 Mark was an assistant coach on the Aptos Little League squad that featured Kevin. The team went to the Little League World Series and was the subject of the documentary film Small Ball.
Mark’s younger brother Dave was drafted three times by the Blue Jays and pitched in the Dodgers and Astros systems from 1983 to 1990. “I always thought Dave was with the wrong organization,” said Eichhorn. “He had a great three-quarter delivery and a strong sinker, but the Dodgers were all about speed, velocity.”44
Even when he was an active player, Eichhorn would conduct clinics in the Santa Cruz area during the offseason. He also had two stints as an assistant coach at Aptos High School, while his boys were in school.
As of early 2022, Eichhorn still resided in Aptos and provided baseball hopefuls with private coaching sessions. He said, “It is beautiful here, the ocean, the weather, it’s where my roots are.”46
Unless otherwise noted, statistics have been taken from Baseball-Reference.com. In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted the following:
Blair, Jeff. Full Count: Four Decades of Blue Jays Baseball (Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2013).
1 Obituary for Robert Eichhorn, Santa Cruz (California) Sentinel, April 23, 2004: 10.
2 Mark Eichhorn, phone interview with author, March 10, 2022.
3 Eichhorn interview.
4 “The Sentinel’s 1978 All-County Basketball Team,” Santa Cruz Sentinel, February 2, 1978: 49.
5 Eichhorn interview.
6 Garson Mattasoff. “North Salinas Clinches Baseball Title,” Salinas Californian, May 17, 1978: 29.
7 “The Sentinel’s 1978 All-County Baseball Team,” Santa Cruz Sentinel, May 21, 1978: 51.
8 “Monterey in Ruth Tourney Finals,” Salinas Californian, July 22, 1978: 16.
9 “Watsonville Shortstop No. 2 Draft,” Santa Cruz Sentinel. January 10, 1979: 15. The other Watsonville player selected directly out of high school was pitcher Ken Swank, drafted by the Kansas City Royals in the 10th round of the June 1980 draft.
10 Eichhorn interview.
11 Eichhorn interview.
12 Eichhorn interview.
13 Ed Vyeda, “County Baseball Products Making Their Way Through Minors,” Santa Cruz Sentinel, March 2, 1980: 55.
14 Eichhorn interview.
15 Eichhorn interview.
16 Eichhorn interview.
17 Eichhorn interview.
18 Ed Vyeda, “Eichhorn at ‘Home’ in Majors,” Santa Cruz Sentinel, September 9, 1982: 29.
19 Eichhorn interview.
20 Eichhorn interview.
21 Eichhorn interview.
22 Eichhorn interview.
23 Eichhorn interview.
24 Eichhorn interview.
25 Eichhorn interview.
26 Brent Ainsworth, “Eichhorn Sent to Minors,” Santa Cruz Sentinel, July 11, 1988: 15.
27 “Braves Deal for Eichhorn,” Santa Cruz Sentinel, March 30, 1989: 13.
28 Eichhorn interview.
29 Eichhorn interview.
30 Eichhorn interview.
31 Eichhorn interview.
32 Eichhorn interview.
33 Brent Ainsworth, “Eichhorn Floating on Air,” Santa Cruz Sentinel, October 27, 1992: 13.
34 Eichhorn interview.
35 Ed Vyeda, “Free Agent,” Santa Cruz Sentinel, January 7, 1996: 13-14.
36 Ed Vyeda, “Eichhorn Starting Over, May End Up in Minors,” Santa Cruz Sentinel, January 20, 1996: 13.
37 Dan Fitch, “Return of the Sidewinder,” Santa Cruz Sentinel, May 2, 1997: 13, 15.
38 Dan Fitch, “No What If’s for Eichhorn,” Santa Cruz Sentinel, September 20, 1998: 15.
39 Eichhorn interview.
40 Josh Nagel, “Pitcher Has Designs on Another Comeback.” Santa Cruz Sentinel, December 26, 1999: 21.
41 “Blue Jays Sign Pitcher Mark Eichhorn,” Santa Cruz Sentinel, June 20, 2000: 24.
42 Eichhorn interview.
44 Eichhorn interview.
45 “Watsonville High Quintet Ready for Immortality, Hall of Fame,” Santa Cruz Sentinel, December 29, 2000: 37.
46 Eichhorn interview.