By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
Who’s the first former Toronto Blue Jays player to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame?
That’s a question that often stumps Canadian baseball fans. And you can be forgiven if you don’t remember Phil Niekro – who’s the answer to the question – making three starts for the Blue Jays in August 1987.
The then 48-year-old knuckleballer (who’s also the answer to: who’s the oldest player in Blue Jays’ history?) would probably like to remove that trio of starts from his resume.
But to his credit, Niekro has not forgotten about his brief tenure with the Canadian club. He even thanked the Blue Jays in his Hall of Fame speech in 1997.
When the Blue Jays acquired Niekro from the last-place Cleveland Indians on August 9, 1987, the durable righty had already accumulated 318 big league wins and more than 3,000 strikeouts in parts of 24 seasons. What he hadn’t done was pitch in the World Series and the Blue Jays, immersed in a battle for first place in the American League East, provided him with a strong shot at achieving that goal.
“I’m ready to try to help this ball club,” Niekro told reporters upon his arrival in Toronto. “To pitch in a World Series is something I’ve always wanted to do, but it’s unrealistic to think of that at this stage. There’s still a long way to go to get there.”
Niekro did, however, like the Blue Jays’ World Series chances.
“I think anybody would be happy to go to a contender,” Niekro told an Associated Press reporter. “A lot of people picked them [the Blue Jays] to win it. I picked them last year, and I picked them or the Yankees this year. They’ve definitely got everything going for them. They’re free of injuries, have good pitching and defence and score a lot of runs. There’s no breakdowns on that ball club.”
The trade for Niekro was announced after the Blue Jays defeated the Indians 5-1 in Cleveland on August 9. Blue Jays general manager Pat Gillick made the deal to add pitching depth. Their first three starters – Jimmy Key, Dave Stieb and Jim Clancy – were enjoying solid seasons, but their fourth starter Joe Johnson had been banished to the minors and the club was concerned that they were leaning too heavily on John Cerutti and rookie Jose Nunez at the end of their rotation.
The Blue Jays didn’t give up much for Niekro. They parted with outfield prospect Darryl Landrum, who was hitting .207 at class-A Advanced Dunedin, and a player to be named later (which turned out to be minor league pitcher Don Gordon). But some scouts were concerned that Niekro was finally nearing the end of the line. The 48-year-old had gone 7-11 with a 5.89 ERA in 22 starts with the Indians.
Despite Niekro’s struggles, Blue Jays manager Jimy Williams quickly affirmed that the veteran would be joining the club’s starting rotation and explained why he was pleased to have the future Cooperstowner joining his club.
“First of all, he’s pitching good,” Williams told the Associated Press. “We have a lot of young players on our team and a veteran might pick us up a little bit. If you look at the last three or four weeks, Jose [Nunez] hasn’t been able to get past the third or fourth inning. That’s put a burden on our bullpen, and putting Jose back in the bullpen might help him. We could’ve taken [Jeff] Musselman and made him a starter, but he’s been doing such a good job in the bullpen.”
Niekro was the first big name pitcher the Blue Jays had traded for during a stretch run, so the players and fans were excited about his addition.
“That’s incredible, I tell you” said Blue Jays outfielder Jesse Barfield about the acquisition of Niekro. “I think he can help us, if he pitches the way he’s capable of. I’m just glad I don’t have to face him.”
Niekro was also eager to join his new team.
“I’ve been throwing the ball better lately than I have in a long time,” Niekro told the Associated Press. “I’ve been getting keyed up mentally that if somebody (a trade to another team) does come along, I’d be in high gear when it happened.”
He also dismissed the idea that he was too long in the tooth to make an impact.
“I don’t see why 40-year-olds can’t pitch for contenders,” Niekro told Ottawa Citizen baseball correspondent Bob Elliott. “There’s nothing in the Basic Agreement against it. It just boils down to doing the job. If you can do the job, clubs should want you. It shouldn’t have anything to do with age.”
Blue Jays fans packed Exhibition Stadium for Niekro’s first start with the club on August 13 against the Chicago White Sox.
And for the first five innings, Niekro didn’t disappoint, holding the White Sox off the scoreboard. But with two outs in the sixth, he threw a fastball to Donnie Hill that the White Sox third baseman belted over the fence for a three-run home run.
Niekro was then taken out of the game, but his pitching line was respectable. He allowed five hits and three earned runs in 5-2/3 innings. Unfortunately, relievers Jeff Musselman and Tom Henke were lit up for seven runs in the eighth inning and the White Sox won 10-3.
“It’s too bad. I wanted to do well tonight and I ruined it all with that one pitch,” Niekro told reporters after the game. “Charlie (Moore) called for a knuckleball, but I shook him off and threw a fastball instead. I had struck Hill out on a fastball the first time up and felt I could get him again.”
Niekro had to wait eight days to make his next start. It came against the California Angels in Anaheim. The grizzled vet was once again impressive through five innings, allowing just a single run. But Devon White led off the sixth with a home run for the Angels and three batters later Tony Armas belted another solo shot. And for the second consecutive start Niekro was pulled with two outs in the sixth inning. The Blue Jays failed to muster much offence against veteran lefty Jerry Reuss and lost 3-1.
“Phil Niekro kept us in the game,” manager Jimy Williams told reporters following the contest. “We just didn’t score any runs.”
Niekro, too, felt good about his outing.
“They keep saying guys over 35-40 can’t do it any longer. But we’re still here, so someone must think we can still do the job,” said Niekro.
The veteran right-hander may have spoken too soon because eight days later at Exhibition Stadium, he was knocked out of the game in the first inning when the Oakland A’s tallied five runs against him. The big blow was a three-run home run by Carney Lansford.
To the Blue Jays’ credit, they rallied to tie the game 5-5, but lost when slugger Mark McGwire socked a solo home run in the top of the 10th.
With this performance, Niekro’s ERA ballooned to 8.25 in three starts with the Blue Jays, who found themselves in a ferocious battle with the Detroit Tigers for the division title.
On August 31, the last day a team could acquire a player and still have them be eligible for the postseason, the Blue Jays landed left-hander Mike Flanagan from the Baltimore Orioles in exchange for minor league pitcher Oswaldo Pereza. To make room for Flanagan on the roster, they released Niekro.
“We had to improve our pitching and we felt Phil was the one not doing the best job,” Gillick told reporters. “Those kind of decisions are never easy. We had to make one last week when we released Gary Lavelle.”
Niekro understood and blamed himself for not pitching well.
“What are you going to do – sit down and pout?” said Niekro of being released. “You get knocked down, you get back up . . . I’m just grateful they brought me over here. It was on a trial basis.”
The next day Niekro flew to Cleveland to pick up his car and then drove it to his home in Atlanta.
There was, however, a happy ending to Niekro’s career. The Braves, the organization he had spent more than two decades with, signed him to a one-day, $1 contract so he could make one final start in a Braves uniform on September 27 against the San Francisco Giants at Fulton County Stadum.
So there you have it, when people ask you who was the first former Blue Jays player to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame? The answer is Phil Niekro, the durable knuckleballer who made three of his 716 big league starts (fifth all-time) as a Blue Jay. And despite his brief and ineffective time with the club, Niekro was classy enough to remember the Blue Jays in his Hall of Fame speech.
“Thank you . . . to the Toronto Blue Jays for trying me one more time for a month in Toronto in 1987,” said Niekro from the podium.