10,000 days since Phil Niekro’s 300th winby Chris Jaffe
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.
1,000 days since Colorado releases catcher Paul Lo Duca.
1,000 days since the Mets end a string of 35 straight innings without allowing a run when Milwaukee’s Corey Hart belts a two-run dingers in the bottom of the ninth for a 2-0 Brewer win.
1,000 days since Detroit slugger Miguel Cabrera hits three home runs in one game.
1,000 days since Tim Wakefield endures his worst Game Score: -1. His line: 3.2 IP, 12 H, 9 R, 9 ER, 3 BB, and 1 K.
2,000 days since Clay Buchholz throws a no-hitter: Boston 10, Baltimore 0. Not bad for a kid making just his second career start.
4,000 days since Al Cowens dies.
4,000 days since the Red Sox hire Grady Little to manage them. It doesn’t take.
5,000 days since Will Clark gets his 2,000th career hit.
5,000 days since Florida trades 1997 World Series hero Craig Counsell to the Dodgers.
5,000 days since Frank Thomas’ longest career hitting streak peaks at 21 games. He’s 33-for-82.
5,000 days since the Mets win, pushing Bobby Valentine’s career record over .500 (803-802). He’s been over .500 ever since.
6,000 days since Roger Clemens fans 20 in a game against the Tigers. It’s his 192nd win with the Red Sox, tying him with Cy Young for most in franchise history. It’s also his last win as a member of the Red Sox, and he and Young are still tied for most wins with Boston.
6,000 days since Barry Larkin has his worst game according to WPA. He’s 0-for-5 with two GIDP and a K for a –0.429 WPA.
8,000 days since the Rangers release defensively challenged slugger Pete Incaviglia.
9,000 days since Wade Boggs hits his only inside-the-park home run.
10,000 days since a flurry of players appear in their final regular-season games, including Rusty Staub, Mike Jorgensen, Mike Hargrove, Jay Johnstone, Larry Bowa, and Jeff Burroughs.
10,000 days since Randy Myers makes his big league debut.
40,000 days since the Giants purchase Art Devlin from the Eastern League’s Newark club.
40,000 days since the Phillies endure their ninth straight postponed game.
1867 Jouett Meekin, pitcher, is born. He’ll have three 20-win seasons, most notably a 33-9 campaign with the 1894 Giants, where he’ll lead the league in winning percentage (.786).
1875 Dummy Taylor, pitcher, is born. In his first full season (1901), he’ll top the league in games (45), starts (43), hits allowed (377), and losses (27).
1876 John Titus, right fielder, is born. He’ll play for 11 seasons in the early 20th century, topping the NL in hits-by-pitch in 1909 with 16.
1903 Longtime Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey is born.
1904 The Yankees purchase Deacon McGuire from Detroit.
1916 Charles Somers sells the Indians to Jim Dunss.
1923 The Indians release veteran first baseman Stuffy McInnis.
1931 The Giants and White Sox play an exhibition game at night at Buffs Stadium in Houston. It’s the first time two major league squads have squared off at night.
1933 On his 30th birthday, Tom Yawkey inherits $7 million. In four days, he’ll use it to buy the Red Sox.
1941 Former big league pitcher Frank Corridon dies at age 60. He pitched for the Phillies and went three straight years without allowing a home run (1907-09).
1943 Jack Billingham, NL pitcher, is born. He’ll win 19 games two straight years with the Big Red Machine and top the league in innings (293.1) and starts (40) in 1973.
1945 Larry MacPhail, who recently became co-owner of the Yankees, becomes GM and president, kicking 76-year-old Ed Barrow upstairs to chairman of the board.
1945 Paul Radford dies at age 83. In 1887 he became the second player ever to draw 100 walks in a season with a then-record 106.
1951 The South Carolina House of Representatives introduces a resolution calling for the reinstatement of Shoeless Joe Jackson.
1957 The Dodgers trade territorial rights to Ft. Worth to the Cubs in exchange for Chicago’s Pacific Coast League rights in Los Angeles. This clears another hurdle for relocating the Dodgers.
1958 Alan Trammell, a shortstop who belongs in Cooperstown, is born.
1968 Players and owners sign the first ever basic contract agreement. It creates a formal grievance procedure and a minimum salary.
1969 The Washington Senators hire Ted Williams as their manager.
1970 Joe Shaute dies at age 70. He won 20 games with the 1924 Indians while leading the league in losses, with 17.
1970 San Francisco signs free agent pitcher Ed Figueroa.
1981 Adam Greenberg is born. For a while, he was famous as a man who saw just one pitch in one major league at-bat and took it in the head for a beaning. However, last year the Marlins gave him a second at-bat so he’d have a major league experience that wasn’t so bad.
1983 Franklin Gutierrez, outfielder, is born.
1989 Pete Rose meets with Commissioner Peter Ueberroth and Commissioner-elect A. Bartlett Giamatti to discuss his gambling debts.
1991 The Yankees sign free agent pitcher Steve Howe.
1999 Former pitcher Vinegar Bend Mizell dies at age 68. He was an All-Star with the 1959 Cardinals.
2000 Cincinnati announces it’s dropping its ban on earrings with the arrival of Ken Griffey Jr.to the club.
2002 Montreal signs free agent Jose Canseco, but he’ll never play for the Expos.
2003 The A’s sign free agent outfielder Ron Gant.
2009 Minnesota signs free agent third baseman Joe Crede.
2012 After four months, the Red Sox and Cubs finally settle on compensation for new Chicago GM Theo Epstein, sending 26-year-old prospect Chris Carpenter to Boston.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.