In a world awash in application software, an app highlighting idiosyncratic Hall of Fame pitcher Dennis Eckersley would figure to be a matter of sooner rather than later. But the story behind the recently released Eck App offers lessons in patience, taking creativity to new heights and showing how a company can stretch its mission boundaries while having plenty of fun in the process.
More than a year in the making, the entertaining Eck App leverages the distinct character and vocabulary that Eckersley shares with baseball fans in New England with his regular pre- and post- Boston Red Sox game appearances on NESN. The app includes a trivia game, an "Eckipedia," with definitions of Eckersley-created terms such as "cheese," "johnson" and "steel" that are accompanied by Eckersley's voice. The app also has a photo-enhancement feature that allows people in digital photos to be "Ecked," or have Eckersley's signature mustache and 1970s mullet-style haircut superimposed on the face in the photo.
"We believe it could be very popular in New England, but it's really a baseball app for all fans across the country," said Mike Carella, a principal and the marketing architect with North Hampton-based Saltwater Creative and Technology, the digital marketing and communications company that nurtured the concept from original idea to release on iTunes.
The Eck App was born when Jimmy Dunn, a stand-up comedian and "concept guy" for Saltwater, had an epiphany. Dunn, who might be best known for producing a series of spirited television ads for Olympia Sports, loved watching baseball but mostly didn't care for post-game analysis, except when Eckersley was on.
"He gets in your brain and stays there," Dunn said. When his wife said she couldn't understand what Eckersley was saying, Dunn figured it was time for an Eck App.
"We need to teach the world how to speak Eck," said Dunn, who admits many of the ideas he shares with the Saltwater team are far-fetched.
Carella said the firm, which is loaded with passionate Red Sox fans, was intrigued, but it faced one of the first of many challenges - the digital media company did not have "app creation process" in its portfolio.
"It was a brilliant idea, but we weren't sure how to pull it off," said Chris Griffin, Saltwater's other principal partner and its creative technologist. "And we wondered if people would purchase this app."
Saltwater solved the multi-faceted technical challenges of the app by partnering with Nashua-based Zco Corp. One aspect not in dispute was a wealth of material provided by Eckersley, who played for five teams in almost 25 years of service and transformed himself from a starting pitcher to a dominant relief pitcher in mid-career.
Beginning during his playing days, Eckersley's colorful personality, candor and language made him a fan favorite.
His use of terms such as "cheese" (fastball), "walk-off" (a game-ending home run) and "steel" (money) provided Dunn and the Saltwater team with plenty of material for an Eckipedia of terms and definitions in the app.
There also was a multiplier effect, Carella explained. "Cheese is believed to be an Eck original," he said, but "Eck uses a variety of cheeses to describe different levels and locations of fastballs - high cheese, hot cheese, educated cheese, sneaky cheese and good cheese. He's got a lot of them."
Eckersley himself was amused and curious when Dunn and Saltwater approached him early in the 2010 season to pitch the Eck App concept. Eckersley knew Dunn through their work together on an Olympia Sports spot - in which deciphering Eck speak provided the comic tone of the ad - and was open to the idea, even if he was unsure about the purpose.
"Jimmy made me laugh, and when they talked about it, it sounded interesting and fun," Eckersley told NHBR. "I was kind of curious more than anything about how apps work and then I thought, 'Why not?'"
There was no shortage of detours and fun-filled episodes in the making of the Eck App. "There were a million details to be filled in. What's it going to look like and how interactive can we make it?" Griffin said.
A montage of 1970s and 1980s retro styles was developed to keep it from being too Red Sox-focused because, Carella said, Eckersley has national popularity.
"We worked to focus on the key attributes that make Dennis so popular," Carella said.
At Zco, there wasn't much familiarity with creating a baseball- and Eckersley-centered app. "We had to work to get our arms around the vision of the Eck App," said David Asplund, an account executive with Zco.
Carella said a recording session last year with Eckersley turned "hilarious," as Eckersley, who was a first-ballot Baseball Hall of Fame pick in 2004, unveiled his full repertoire of more than 25 baseball terms and definitions.
There were plenty of hurdles, Griffin said. But after multiple stops and starts, and with final input from Eckersley himself, the Eck App was released in mid-April. Carella said Saltwater is supporting it with a marketing campaign, a Facebook page, a Twitter account and even plans for a special page and possible contest for people who have been photo Ecked.
It's anybody's guess whether this first app for a professional athlete of this type will play in the competitive and ever-expanding 99-cent app marketplace.
"Nobody's going to get rich off this," Dunn said.
Carella said that, given Eckersley's popularity in New England alone, it could draw tens of thousands of downloads in the region and possible go viral from there.
For Saltwater, the fun of "ecking" employees in the office and the expense of building the Eck App on spec has led to the evolution in the firm of its communications portfolio. Carella said using apps is a quick and potent communications avenue for its wide range of business clients - which include San Diego-based A.G. Scientific and BankNewport in Rhode Island - in an online world that is fast becoming mobile-based.
Eckersley said he is pleased with the final product. Or to put it in Eck speak: "Unless you've got a dead arm, using this app is a can of corn. It only costs a few beans, so if you can rake you've gotta pull the trigger on the easy cheese and download the Eck App."