Before Dickey, Before Candiotti, There was Knucksie

Phil Niekro - 1988 Classic Red

Given that there probably wasn’t time to take pictures on Aug 29, this picture is likely from Aug 13, 1987 at Exhibition Stadium against the Chicago White Sox.

The wildest thing that happened while I wasn’t writing was the complete transformation of the Blue Jays, who suddenly seemed to realize that a) Toronto is a large market, b) Rogers has a lot of money and c) the Canadian dollar hasn’t been at 63 cents US in years.

As a Jays fan, the whole period of November-December is best described as “surreal.”  There was a time 20 years ago when it seemed perfectly natural to go out and pick up a Paul Molitor or a Dave Stewart when the team needed a little boost, but it has not been that way for a very, very long time.  To suddenly see the team poised as a legitimate contender for post-season action is still taking time to get used to.  The embarrassment of the Farrell bail-job seems years ago.

I wasn’t convinced they needed to go make the R.A. Dickey trade after all the other moves, but it’s an interesting one and he seems like an interesting person as well as a tremendous pitcher and he makes for a rotation like I haven’t seen since, well, maybe ever.

The Jays really have very little history with knuckleballers.  As far as I can remember, there was half a season from Tom Candiotti (who I was never all that fond of) in 1991 and exactly three starts from Phil Niekro in 1987.  The Niekro experiment was really short and was always something that I thought should have been handled differently.

Phil Niekro was acquired from the Cleveland Indians on August 9, 1987 in exchange for reliever Don Gordon and an A-ball player named Darryl Landrum.  He had gone 7-11 with a 5.89 ERA for a lousy Indians team and had been rocked for 5 earned runs over 7 1/3 innings in his last start against the Yanks.  Five days prior to that, though, he’d had a really good start against Toronto and thus the Jays – then holding a half-game lead on NY (and 1 1/2 on Detroit) for first in the AL East – must have thought he had something left to give.

Phil Niekro was 48 years old in 1987 and near the end, yet his arrival still met with a ton of excitement.  This was easily the biggest name the Jays had ever had (they were only a 10-year-old team then and their best talent was home-grown) and remains the only active 300-game winner they’ve ever had on the roster.  Over 45000 people packed into Exhibition Stadium (in which there were maybe 1500 good seats – I kid – I had more fun there than at the Dome) to watch him pitch.

When you look at Phil Niekro’s last couple of starts prior to becoming a Blue Jay, one thing was apparent: he was being left in games too long.  In the start he had against Toronto, he went six shutout innings, then couldn’t get an out in the seventh (though he only gave up one earned run).  Against the Yankees, he only trailed 2-0 through 6 and 3-0 through 7 before giving up another pair in the 8th.  He could give you a really good five innings, six if you were lucky, but anything beyond that was a little dodgy.  (Clearly, two starts does not a trend make, but watch where it goes.)

Slotting him where the Jays wanted in their rotation, Niekro’s first Toronto start came on eight days rest on August 13, 1987 at home against Chicago.  Reliever Jeff Musselman gave up his number 35 so the veteran could wear it.

45,152 people watched him give up a leadoff single to Ozzie Guillen, who promptly stole second and wound up on third on a throwing error.  Knucksie got a grounder to third, a popout to short and a flyout to second to wriggle free.  Then he settled in.  Through five, the game was 1-0 Toronto.

With two out in the top of the sixth, things unravelled in a real hurry.  Ron Hassey singled and went to second on a wild pitch.  Greg Walker walked – as one might expect – and Donnie Hill homered.  Just like that, it was 3-1 Chicago.  Three batters, three runs.  Out came Knucksie, in came sidearmer Mark Eichhorn.  The Jays would get one back before the bullpen (mainly Musselman) fell apart.  The final was 10-3 Chicago and Niekro took the loss.

He was really gracious about the first start, expressing astonishment that that many people would come out to see a 48-year-old man throw knuckleballs.  His performance really wasn’t bad, though it was clear that when things were going to go south, they’d go in a hurry.  You needed a ready bullpen and a quick hook.

His second start was 8 days later, August 21, 1987.  This was a road start against the Angels and the same basic pattern held.  He had a little trouble in the first, this time giving up a run, then settled in.  Through 5 innings, the Jays and Angels were tied at a run apiece.  Niekro entered the sixth and promptly gave up a leadoff homer to Devon White and a two-out shot to Tony Armas.  He left with the same line as previously – 5 2/3 innings, three earned runs.  Again, he got a loss as the Jays couldn’t muster any offense.

I really wanted Niekro to succeed and I was tracking his ERA as a Jay inning by inning (what, you think I just became a nerd recently?).  Entering the sixth, he was a very respectable 3.38 – two homers later, it was 4.76.  Watching the game, it was clear that manager Jimy (“one-M”) Williams was again late with the hook.

Still, Niekro had delivered two performances that could just as easily have been wins as losses.  The bullpen threw away the first one, a lack of offense did in the second.

The third start again came on 8 days rest – August 29, 1987 at home against Oakland.  This time, there was no escaping the trouble in the first inning.  Oakland ate Niekro alive in this one, torching him for 5 earned in just 2/3 of an inning.  Cerutti came in to bail him out and the Jays actually managed to tie it before losing 6-5, so while Phil got a no-decision in this one, it was not pretty.  After three starts, he had a 0-2 record and an ERA of 8.10 as a Jay.  Of the three, only one was particularly poor, but the team never managed to win a Niekro start.

On August 31, 1987, two days after the Oakland fiasco, Niekro was let go.  He was really gracious about the whole Toronto experience.  He did say that he might have felt a little too strong pitching on 8 days rest each time and thus got it into his head that he could throw more fastballs (which were getting pounded).  He thanked everyone for the chance.  He’d sign briefly with Atlanta for one last start and then retired as a Brave, where he’d spent the bulk of his career.

I thought Niekro got somewhat hosed here (not as badly as Stieb got hosed in his comeback, but hosed all the same).  He pitched two winnable games and never got into a real rhythm before being cast off.  Knuckleballs are a “feel” pitch and at least according to Jim Bouton, it helps to be a little tired.  Eight days between starts made no sense.

There was another factor, though.  On August 31, 1987, the same day Niekro was released, the Jays made a second trade for a pitcher, getting Mike Flanagan from the Orioles.  This was the deal that to my mind ended the “Stand Pat” portion of Pat Gillick’s career.  From this point on, the Jays wouldn’t be hesitant about making moves for bigger names.  It also bumped Niekro out of a spot.

Clearly, Dickey is in a much better point in his career than Niekro was and much better things are to be expected.  I’ll just cast a thought back towards Knucksie the first time I see him pitch.

There’s only the one card of Niekro as a Jay (that I’ve ever seen, anyway) and, as I’ve hinted at above, I think the assessment it makes was unfair.  This is from the 1988 Classic set.

Phil Niekro - 1988 Classic Red back

Nobody deserves a card that says “Ineffective Phil.” Repeat that, Leafs fans….

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5 Responses to Before Dickey, Before Candiotti, There was Knucksie

  1. offcentred says:

    The end of the career of a knuckleballer always seems more tragic, maybe because they always seem to lose it overnight. Watching Tim Wakefield go out to the mound every fifth day to try and catch Clemens’s team wins record all while adding to the Great Red Sox Collapse of 2011 was painful. The Sox also called up Charlie Zink–a second knuckleballer–during the ’08 season to make a spot start and, though he was spotted with a ten run lead in the first–he left the game with a no decision.

  2. Dave H says:

    I will always have love for the knucklers…Charlie Hough was always a favourite of mine!

  3. shanediaz82 says:

    Great write-up. I’m glad someone is excited about baseball, I just have no confidence in the 2013 Red Sox as presently construed!

  4. I can’t believe what they wrote on the card. I have seen unflattering remarks on cards but never anything downright negative, bordering on malicious. I always thought there was some sort of agreement between the players association and the card companies to be nice on the cards.

  5. topher says:

    I actually just pulled this exact Neikro card from a box of random 80s junk wax. Man, no one looked older than Neikro. Well, maybe Charlie Hough.

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