TORONTO — Twenty-one years and 299 victories into his career, Phil Niekro decided to prove he was more than just a knuckleball pitcher.
And for 26 outs Sunday, on his way to an 8-0 victory over Toronto, Phil Niekro, the knuckleballer, simply became Phil Niekro the pitcher. He threw curveballs, slip pitches, fastballs and screwballs. And for 8 innings, the Blue Jays could not touch him.
Then, on the threshold of the milestone only 18 other pitchers have achieved, sentiment took over, and the need to prove that he could win without the knuckler lost out.
"As hard as it may seem, I threw three knuckleballs, and that's when Jeff Burroughs (the final batter) came up to the plate," Phil Niekro said. "I figured if there's anyway I'm going to win my 300th game by striking the guy out, I was going to do it with the pitch that won the first game for me."
So, after Burroughs took a fastball for a strike, he got three butterflies. He took the first for a ball and the second for a strike. Then the Toronto designated hitter swung through the third knuckleball, giving Niekro the milestone victory that had eluded him for four starts.
"I can't say it (winning 300 games) has never been done before because it has been," Niekro said. "I think the main thing is that it does show that you don't have to throw the ball 95 m.p.h. or have a Dwight Gooden curveball to win in the big leagues. As you know, the knuckleball was taught to me by my father, and I've thrown it my whole career. Maybe it will set an example for some people who don't have that ability to throw the fastball or curveball. If you do have a pitch that you can get over the plate, you can win."
Niekro's first victory came on April 13, 1965. The latest, coming in his 804th major league game, raised Niekro's career record to 300-250 and his season mark to 16-12.
The victory was somewhat bittersweet for Niekro. The day before, he had watched as the Yankees' hopes for an American League East title and his dreams for his first World Series appearance were dashed by a 5-1 defeat to the Blue Jays.
"I would trade this in for a game that meant something in the pennant race," said Niekro, who won New York's 97th game, allowing the team to finish two behind Toronto.
When Niekro first went after the milestone, the Yankees were very much in the race. But Niekro lost each of his first three attempts, then had a no-decision in his fourth try. For the past week, Niekro's anguish was personal, too, as his 72-year-old father, Phil, lay critically ill in a West Virginia hospital.
Even the personal drama brightened Sunday.
"The nicest feeling of the whole day was right after I came off the mound (his brother) Joe told me they took my dad out of intensive care," Phil said. "I'll go home tomorrow (today). I'm going to take him my hat and give him my baseball. He was as much a part of these 300 wins as I was. I don't know what he wants to do with the ball and the hat, but they're going to be his."
The mood among the Yankees was loose before the game, but the goal was clear-cut, too.
"Get 'Knucksie' the 300," Bobby Meacham said. "He always puts the team first. That's a quality that must be tough to keep for 21 years. But he always kept this thing about 'us' and making the playoffs. That's something I'll always remember about Knucksie and the way he played this year."
Although 17 others belong in the 300 club with Niekro, he did claim one baseball record for his very own. As his 71-year-old mother, Henrietta, informed Yankee announcer John Gordon when told Phil was three outs away from a shutout, "Oh, I hope he gets it because he'll become the oldest player in the history of baseball to pitch a shutout."
At the age of 46 years, 188 days, Niekro indeed became the oldest, using his 45th career shutout to surpass the St. Louis Browns' Satchel Paige, who was 46 years, 75 days old when he shut out the Chicago White Sox on Sept. 20, 1952.
If Niekro hadn't pitched the shutout, his brother would have pitched the ninth inning. Joe Niekro wasn't needed, but Billy Martin--tongue firmly in cheek--did have six relievers warming up before the ninth. Then, after Phil Niekro got two quick outs and yielded Toronto's seventh and last hit (a pinch-hit double by Tony Fernandez), Martin sent Joe Niekro, acting as a substitute pitching coach, to the mound.
"I said nothing," catcher Butch Wynegar said. "Phil saw Joe coming out and he just sort of rolled his eyes."
Joe wanted to know if Phil thought an intentional walk to Burroughs, a former teammate in Atlanta, was in order. Phil, laughing, said no.
"Phil just smiled at me," Burroughs said. "I said, 'You want me?' He said, 'Yeah, I want you.' And he got me."
The strikeout was Niekro's 3,197th. And the knuckleball? "It was just like the 120,000 he's thrown before," Burroughs said. "It was jumping all over the place."