Phil Niekro and Tommy John (a long look back)

As a tribute to Tommy John and Phil Niekro, probably the two great aged pitchers of the late ’80s (not including Nolan Ryan on that list), I’m going to put together some information about first Niekro and then John in their waning days in baseball. Niekro was cut by the Blue Jays at the end of August 1987, a few weeks after joining the team. Toronto cut him to make way for Mike Flanagan, himself an 11-year veteran with the Orioles. 1987 was a year that saw Reggie Jackson, Steve Carlton, Graig Nettles,  Don Sutton, Scott McGregor, Don Baylor, Bill Madlock, Tom Seaver, Cecil Cooper, Dave Concepcion, Jose Cruz, Ted Simmons, Davey Lopes, Ron Cey, and Rich Gossage all either near the end of their careers or at the end. The stars of the ’70s were leaving the stage, with Niekro among them.

The Toronto Star reported:

New York Yankee pitcher Tommy John last night became the oldest active player in major-league baseball.

Nursing a slow beer at his locker in last night’s quiet Blue Jay clubhouse, stood John’s predecessor – Phil Niekro, 48, and suddenly unemployed.

Only, not for long.

“I’m not just gonna walk away from the game,” assured Niekro.

“I’ll be in uniform next year, somewhere, in some capacity,” said the future Hall of Famer. “I’d like to keep pitching, but I’d also like to manage. Teams are aware of that – the Atlanta organization knows, Cleveland knows.

“They (Jays) really weren’t sure what I could do, I guess, but I don’t fault anybody but myself. If I had pitched well enough to stay here, I’d be staying here.”

Niekro, acquired August 9 in a swap with the Indians, made three starts in his brief stint with the Jays – going 0-2 with an 8.25 ERA for 12 innings toil.

The first two outings had been decent enough; Saturday’s two- thirds of an inning against Oakland (four hits, five runs) had not.

So, no, after roughly 23 full seasons as a major-leaguer – 318 wins, 285 losses, 3,341 strikeouts and 5,400 innings-pitched, there would again be no World Series for Knucksie.

“Hey, there’s a lot of guys in that boat,” Niekro said.

“I’m thankful this organization gave me the shot. It happens . . . there used to be a guy in this locker here just last week (here, pointing to the adjacent locker once occupied by Gary Lavelle).”

A writer dropped by Niekro’s locker to say he was sorry.

‘Sorry?’ for what?

“Sorry?” Niekro said. “What – you just get fired or something?”

Then Jesse Barfield dropped by to offer another quiet good-bye.

Said Niekro: “Hey. You keep your head. I know it’s gonna come to you,” meaning Barfield’s hitting stroke.

“What do I do now?” Niekro said. “Probably fly to Cleveland and get my car, I guess, then maybe drive on home to Atlanta. I’ll keep an eye on how (brother) Joe’s doing (with the Minnesota Twins); keep an eye on these guys (Jays).

“I’ll be back, though.”

On September 20, he acknowledged: “It’s getting to that point where I have to start realizing that I may have to (retire).

“I’ve pitched some good ball games, and I’ve pitched some bad ones. It doesn’t mean that I’m not going to come out next year, if I do play, and have a great season.

“It’s not my age that’s a determining factor. I know that I’m not going to pitch until I’m 60 or 65. But nobody wants to hire me.”

A newspaper reported:

Now, he is speaking with the Braves about some sort of role with the organization. Meanwhile, fans and sportswriters are calling for the Braves to hire him for one farewell pitching performance this month at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.

“They’re my home, my family,” said Niekro, who broke in with the Braves in Milwaukee in 1964 and played 18 years with the franchise in Atlanta before being released at the end of the 1983 season.

“The Atlanta clubhouse is just like my own house,” he said. “I can walk around in it blindfolded. That uniform is the only one I’ve ever wanted to wear. I didn’t want to get out of it, but I didn’t have a choice.

“When I got away from it the last three or four years, it was always my feeling that some way or another, I was going to come back to Atlanta and put that uniform on again.

“I’ve always said that when I did want to walk away from the game, the last picture of me is going to be with an Atlanta Braves uniform on. … I don’t want it said that the last team he played with was the Toronto Blue Jays. I want to say that the last team I played with was the Atlanta Braves.”

He freely admits that he would pitch one more time in Atlanta for old times’ sake.

“The blood’s flowing,” he said. “It’s just a matter of working it out. I can’t think of a better way to end my career than pitching in Atlanta Stadium.”

But Niekro, who was honored by the Braves in an unusual 1984 ceremony – a year after the Atlanta dumped him, and while he was winning for the New York Yankees – says he doesn’t want another “Phil Niekro Night.”

“I don’t want speeches,” he said. “I don’t want anyone to stop the game and say, ‘We’ve enjoyed it.’

“Just give me the ball like I’ve always had it and if I last, fine. If not, come out and get me.”

Niekro did make his final start with Atlanta, on September 27, 1987, at 48 (and a half). The Houston Chronicle reported:

“I’m officially announcing my retirement today,” Niekro said after pitching into the fourth inning of San Francisco’s 15-6 win over the Braves. “I’ve been thinking about this for three or four months, not just the last few days. It wasn’t a tough decision to make.”

Niekro completed a 23-year major-league career, 18 in Atlanta, with a three-inning stint that produced seven standing ovations from a crowd of 26,019 – most of them on hand simply because one of Atlanta’s all-time sports heroes was involved.

The Braves took a 5-0 lead in the third inning, but Niekro failed to get a batter out in the fourth, facing five men before being lifted.

“I couldn’t think of a better way to retire than with an ‘A’ on my cap,” Niekro said. “I was not embarrassed because I got beat around out there. I’ve done that before.”

Braves Manager Chuck Tanner was loudly booed when he went to the mound to remove Niekro. “I told Chuck before the ball game to manage like he would any other game,” Niekro said. “I was struggling from the first inning on.” Of his 80 pitches, 42 were balls. He walked six men and allowed six hits.

“I was hoping he would go five (innings) and get the win,” Tanner said. “My heart was set on not letting him get the loss … I couldn’t see him going out with a loss against his name.”

The longest ovation, about four minutes, came when Niekro was removed from the game. “It was probably the best feeling I ever had,” he said. “I wanted to get up and applaud the fans.”

He certainly wasn’t at his best, mostly because he hadn’t pitched since Aug. 29, two days before his release by the Blue Jays. A two-run single by Dale Murphy and Gary Roenicke’s three-run homer off Atlee Hammaker gave Niekro a 5-0 lead in the third, but Niekro, relying on his knuckleball, failed to get a batter out in the fourth.
He faced five men before being lifted, and reliever Chuck Cary gave up a pinch grand slam to Candy Maldonado that put the Giants ahead to stay, 6-5.

Since Niekro gave up five runs, he was not charged with the loss; Cary was. Niekro also allowed six hits and walked six.

“I couldn’t think of a better way to retire than with an ‘A’ on my cap,” Niekro said at a packed news conference after the game. “I was not embarrassed because I got beat around out there. I’ve done that before.”

“I told Chuck before the ballgame to manage like he would any other game,” Niekro said. “I was struggling from the first inning on.”

“I was hoping he would go five (innings) and get the win,” Tanner said. “My heart was set on not letting him get the loss.”

This same year, 1987, saw Niekro’s younger brother Joe win a World Series with the Twins, in Joe’s last full big league season. The brothers were teammates with the Yankees in the mid-’80s, and Joe himself was 43 when he retired. Phil’s career ended without even a Series appearance. This story continues with Tommy John in 1989:

Tommy John, still the major league’s oldest player two years after being handed that role by Phil Niekro in 1987, made the Yankees’ roster in spring training 1989. He said of that: “I’ve had to make the team every year since 1986. I’m on trial every time I go out to pitch. Considering the circumstances, you’d have to say this is special.

“I mean, the big thing is that I made the club at a time when I still thought I could pitch and some people didn’t. It doesn’t matter if it’s the first game or the fifth, just being here was my goal.

“People bring up 300 wins, but that’s not why I’m still pitching. I enjoy it. I have fun at it. I think I can still get major league hitters out. I love the physical work. I was at the park at 8 every morning in the spring and I’ll be in the health club at the hotel tomorrow.”

John didn’t just make the roster, he started for the Yankees on opening day, at 45. A newspaper reported:

John was the winning pitcher in and the focus of the Yankees’ 4-2 opening-game victory against the Twins, and not only because he established a major-league record by appearing in a 26th season. Opposing Cy Young Award winner Frank Viola with a makeshift lineup, the Yankees had no right winning. But the result was only as improbable as John’s presence on the mound.

The Yankees defeated the Twins, a team with superior personnel, and Viola, a superlative pitcher, on Opening Day for the second successive season primarily because of Roberto Kelly and John. John provided seven innings of bend-but-don’t-break pitching and Kelly contributed a remarkable performance – four hits (for the first time in his career), two runs, two runs batted in, a home run and two stolen bases.

“That’s my game,” Kelly said. “Running. If I can get on base, I can make something happen. The home run is a bonus.”

The byproducts of their efforts were the 287th victory of John’s career, the first AL victory for manager Dallas Green and an injection of confidence for a team that has been decimated by trades and injuries. No Clark, no Winfield, no Mattingly. No problem.

The Yankees stole five bases – Kelly’s two and the other three by Rickey Henderson – scored one run on Steve Sax’ sacrifice fly and one on an infield out by Sax. And they did it with Tom Brookens batting third and with a lineup that had a history of little success against Viola.

“Getting hits doesn’t always get it done,” Green said. And as proof, he could point to the Twins’ effort against John. They amassed 10 hits in seven innings against his ground-ball pitching. The Yankees had nine against Viola and his successor, Juan Berenguer.

“He was in more jams than I was,” Viola said, “but he got out of them.”

“I thought I had better than 10-hit stuff,” John said. “People think that pitching is knocking the catcher back 15 feet. They think when you get old, you have to throw a trick pitch. I don’t.”

“Tell him he’s too old to pitch . . . to get the hell out,” Viola said, smiling. “I don’t care if he’s 45 or 25,” said Twins second baseman Wally Backman, who had two hits against John in his first American League game. “He pitched great. We were cursing at him, screaming at him, telling him he’s too old. But we were ticked off because he was beating us. Actually, I think it’s neat that he’s still out there.”

John said: “I don’t think I had to prove anything to him [Green] tonight. I think I proved it to him in spring training. That’s why I’m here in the first place.”

”He’s phenomenal,” Viola said of John. ”He’s been thrown out the window, and he keeps coming back.”

John added: “I’m old. It’s a fact. I’d like to say I’ve lost 15 or 20 miles off my fastball, but I don’t know if I ever had it to lose. They didn’t have radar guns when I started.”

The truth is that the final fastball he threw Tuesday night registered 85 m.p.h. He is deceptively fast, with a slider, curve and changeup to go with it.

“I feel as strong now at 45-plus as I have in the last 10 years,” John said. “People think you have to knock the catcher back five feet with every pitch, but there’s more to it.

“Of course, people have doubted me from the start. Even when I first signed in 1961, people in my hometown said I couldn’t throw hard enough, I wouldn’t be around long. But here I am.”

Read about the rest of John’s 1989 season here.

Published in: on May 16, 2009 at 1:20 am  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Great stuff, Arne. I read the entire thing. Long gone are the days when the Yanks would have someone like Tom Brookens batting third. Remember when Roberto Kelly was going to be a big star?
    I have even more respect for Niekro now than I did before.
    Do you think Tommy John should be in The Hall?

  2. I’m not sure about John, but it is interesting: his surgery was a landmark in baseball, he was a major trendsetter there-he has to get credit for that. Yet I think that surgery is all a lot of people know about his playing career at this point. Without looking up his stats, John-he would not be a really undeserving HOF guy.

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