May 24, 2013
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Thursday, February 21, 2013
10,000 days ago, a memorable bit of baseball history occurred as a player achieved one of the game’s greatest career milestones. The player was Phil Niekro, and the milestone was, of course, win No. 300.
On Oct. 6, 1985, Niekro took the hill for the final time that season. Not only would a win that day make him just the 18th player in history with 300 wins, it would also give him a remarkably even-figured career record of 300-250 heading into the offseason.
Though he’d spent almost all of his career with the Braves, in 1985 the 46-year-old knuckleballer was a New York Yankee. Niekro was going to have to earn his 300th win today, for the opposition was the dangerous Toronto Blue Jays, who had just clinched the AL East over the second-place Yankees.
However, because Toronto had just clinched the division, this game would not be nearly as difficult as it appeared. With just a few days left until the playoffs, Toronto skipper Bobby Cox decided to rest many of his starters.
In the mid-1980s, the Jays had the best outfield in baseball with George Bell in left, Jesse Barfield in right, and Lloyd Moseby in center. They all had the day off. First baseman Willie Upshaw received support in MVP voting each of the previous two years, and he also was on the bench today. So was shortstop and emerging star Tony Fernandez. Ditto catcher Ernie Whitt, an All-Star that year, as was longtime third baseman Rance Mulliniks.
The only regular starters on the field were aging designated hitter Jeff Burroughs and singles-hitting second baseman Damaso Garcia, and Garcia would be pulled mid-game for career backup Garth Iorg.
So it was a lineup of also-rans. To be fair, some of those also-rans had a nice future in front of them, most notably first baseman Cecil Fielder. Third baseman Kelly Gruber would be a better player than Mulliniks, whom he replaced in the lineup. Still, it wasn’t a very impressive assembly of talent standing between Niekro and 300 wins. Then again, Cox’s main goal was getting the team ready for the postseason, and this looked like a good way to do it.
And if that made Niekro’s quest for No. 300 all the easier, so be it. After all, Cox had once managed Niekro in Atlanta in the late 1970s and early 1980s during some of Niekro’s best seasons.
New York’s lineup was more that able to give Niekro the support he needed. Featuring stars like Rickey Henderson, Dave Winfield, and Don Mattingly, the team spotted Niekro a 3-0 lead before he ever took the mound. They kept pouring it on, giving Niekro eight runs on the day.
Between that offensive support and Toronto’s barren lineup, Niekro set out to do more than just win the game; he wanted to prove a point. A longtime knuckler, Niekro had long been pigeonholed as a pure trick-pitch hurler; a man with just that one weird pitch. So Niekro was going to prove he had more to him than the knuckleball. He set out to get the win without it.
And so Niekro retired the side in order without a knuckler in the first. He stayed away from it onward, and the results worked for him. He didn’t allow a hit until the fourth inning, as he completely flummoxed the Blue Jay batters with his surprising choice of non-knucklers.
Heading into the ninth, Niekro led, 8-0. His 300th win was just a gimme at this point. The real questions were if he’d ever throw the knuckler and if he could keep the shutout. After retiring the first two batters, pinch-hitter Tony Fernandez doubled, just the fourth Toronto hit on the day.
At this point, Phil’s brother Joe Niekro came to the mound as honorary pitching coach, and joking suggested that now was the time for an intentional walk. Phil realized he’d made his point about being more than a one-pitch pony and proceeded to strike out Burroughs on three pitches, the only knucklers of the game.
Niekro had win No. 300, assuring his eventual place in Cooperstown. He made another bit of history on the day, too. He became the oldest pitcher to throw a complete-game shutout, a record that stood a quarter century until Jamie Moyer broke it.
But this day belonged to Phil Niekro, and it happened 10,000 days ago.
Aside from that, many other events today celebrate their anniversary or “day-versary.” Here they are, with the better ones in bold if you’d rather just skim.
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