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Baseball : Niekro Brothers Can't Figure Out Why Yankees Released Phil

March 30, 1986|Ross Newhan

PALM SPRINGS — In the soap opera that is without end, the New York Yankees released Phil Niekro just 24 hours before they would have had to guarantee $250,000 of his $350,000 contract.

They ended up having to play him for only 45 days of spring training, but it wasn't the dollars that enraged the Niekro brothers--who were looking forward to pitching together for the first time in their pro careers--as much as it was the lack of sense.

"How do you release a 16-game winner?" a furious Joe Niekro asked when the decision was announced Friday night. "If that's the way they treat winners around here, why should I want to pitch here?"

The younger of the Niekro brothers reportedly stormed into the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., office of owner George Steinbrenner to ask that question but later said he had not demanded to be traded, that he would stay and give 100% on behalf of professionals such as Willie Randolph and Dave Winfield.

His brother, meanwhile, said he had been treated like a "piece of meat," that he was given a new contract only so he could be "used as bait" in the Yankees' attempt to sign brother Joe, a free agent at the time.

"I could have taken the Yankees to (salary) arbitration and won," Phil Niekro said, "but I didn't want to cause problems. I guess I should have known better. I didn't have a chance (this spring). I could have pitched 25 shutout innings and not made the team.

"The decision was made. Why'd they even invite me down here? Well, they won't find anyone who will win more games than I can."

Niekro, who will be 47 Tuesday, had a 5.40 earned-run average for 13 spring innings, but he pitched four shutout innings Thursday.

He won 16 games each of the last two seasons. Only eight American League pitchers had more wins last season.

The Yankee media corps reported that this was one more decision made without the approval of the manager, who for the time being is Lou Piniella.

Rookie Bob Tewskbury, 6-5 at Albany and 3-0 at Columbus last season, will replace Phil Niekro in a suspect rotation, joining Ron Guidry, Joe Niekro, Ed Whitson and either John Montefusco, who missed almost all of last season with a hip injury, or Tommy John, who was released twice last season--by the Angels and the Oakland A's.

The Yankees are also said to be pursuing either Jerry Reuss of the Dodgers, Moose Haas of the Milwaukee Brewers or Tom Seaver of the Chicago White Sox.

Reuss is thought to be unavailable because of the uncertainty surrounding the comeback attempt of Alejandro Pena.

The Brewers, who moved two rookies (Juan Nieves and Bill Wegman) into their rotation and are hopeful of adding a third (Dan Plesac) in the bullpen, are definitely expected to trade Haas before opening day. Milwaukee wants a prospect package in return. The very interested A's are thought to have the best shot at satisfying the requirement.

Seaver would not come cheaply, but he continues an attempt to force the White Sox's hand, desiring to finish his career in either Boston or New York, close to his Connecticut home.

Informed that he will be Chicago's opening-day pitcher, Seaver said, "My No. 1 priority is to be traded."

Add Yankees: By trading Don Baylor to the Boston Red Sox for Mike Easler, New York's realigned platoons now have Easler sharing the designated hitter assignment with Gary Roenicke, while Ken Griffey and Henry Cotto will platoon in left field.

Baylor, unhappy as a platoon DH, should join Jim Rice and Tony Armas in demolishing Fenway Park's left-field wall. In 82 career games--the equivalent of a half-season--at Fenway, Baylor has 17 homers, 65 runs batted in, a .350 batting average and a .555 slugging percentage.

Question: Was he taking advantage of Fenway's cozy dimensions or an often-beleaguered Boston pitching staff? Answer in October.

Detroit Tigers shortstop Alan Trammell is worried about his shoulder.

He's also worried that he continues to worry.

"I've been playing a lot of mind games, and I can't do that if I want to play," Trammell said the other day.

The disintegration of a defense that formed the foundation for the Tigers' 104 victories in 1984 has paralleled the apparent collapse of Trammell's confidence in his ability to make the tough throw.

Trammell, the MVP of the 1984 World Series, had been experiencing shoulder discomfort for much of the previous two seasons.

He had surgery to repair exterior weaknesses in the rotator cuff in the winter of '84 but continued to have problems not represented by his 1985 fielding percentage, which was second among American League shortstops to Chicago rookie Ozzie Guillen.

Trammell's inability and/or unwillingness to cut loose was seen on long throws from the hole and as the middle man in potential double plays.

Only Oakland, the Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers converted fewer double plays than the Tigers last season.

Now, in the new spring, Trammell has been in and out of the lineup, complaining of pain. An orthopedist said Friday that Trammell has an inflamed tendon below the right shoulder blade.

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