- Mike Whiteman
Phil Niekro's 1984 Thriller
By Mike Whiteman January 31, 2023 The 1983 Yankees won 91 games, finishing seven games behind the eventual World Series Champion Baltimore Orioles. They were as close as a game out of first in August, but faded down the stretch. Despite the disappointment, it was a twelve-game improvement over the disaster of 1982, and the team seemed to be moving in a positive direction. A glass of cold ice water was dumped on the optimism when in a stunning development, the Yanks' dominant closer Rich Gossage - and his 2.10 ERA and his 150 saves over six seasons -left for San Diego as a free agent. On his way out, the "Goose" specifically stated that he had enough of the George Steinbrenner circus atmosphere. Gossage would contribute significantly to the Padres' first National League pennant in 1984. The Gossage loss set off a a shuffle which moved 25-year old stud lefty Dave Righetti, fresh off a 14-8, 3.44 season with a July 4th no-hitter against Boston, to the bullpen to take the ace fireman role. This itself was another stunning development, as never in memory was a player with Righetti's talent and projected ace future shifted to the bullpen. These were still the days where the starting pitchers ruled. "Rags" clearly stated his desire to stay in the rotation, but would be a good soldier and do his best in the role. In light of these changes, reinforcements to the pitching staff were clearly needed. As per his history, George Steinbrenner was on the case. His primary pitching acquisition was longtime Atlanta Braves ace knuckleballer Phil Niekro, he of 268 career victories, who was released at the end of the 1983 season and would turn 45 on April 1.
April fool? Were the Yankees really replacing Righetti in the rotation with a 45-year old castoff pitcher? Upon the signing, the Yanks "warned" Butch Wynegar that he would be be Niekro's primary catcher, and outfitted him with the special "butterfly" knuckleball catching glove as well. The plan was to have Niekro throw his knuckler a bit more this Spring Training than previously to help Wynegar acclimate himself to the erratic pitch. One benefit of this approach was that by the time the season started, the knuckler was in almost mid-season form. That was significant, as Niekro historically was a better pitcher in the second half of the season. In fact, "Knucksie" had a 5-18 record over his past seven Aprils. He also had the advantage of introducing his signature pitch to a new league, most of whom had never seen it before - these were the days pre-interleague play when the leagues had distinct differences. After his first start when he allowed three runs in just over six innings, he allowed a total of seven earned runs over his next nine starts, and sat at 7-2, 1.20 through May 20th. He came down to earth a bit after then, but was 11-4, 1.84 at the All-Star break, leading the league in ERA, and attaining his 3000th career strikeout on July 4th, only the ninth player at the time to have reached that milestone. In his first season for the Yankees, he was making quite the impression! Outside of Deadball Era pitchers, only Spud Chandler (1943) and Ron Guidry (1978) had gone a full season under 2.00 ERA in team history. That was good, because the rest of the team was not making much of an impression on their fans. As readers may remember, 1984 was the year of Tiger, when Detroit came out of the gate at a torrid 35-5 pace. The Yanks were 10.5 games out of first at the end of April, 17.5 out at the end of May. Less than a third of the way into the season the Yankees were out of the hunt, and it looked like a long summer was ahead. The one thing going for them was Niekro's historic start. Without his floating knuckleball, the team may have fallen off the map, as at one point the Yanks were 12-3 when Niekro started, and were 17-33 in other games.
"The old man has been something else" shared his manager, Yogi Berra. The All-Star game of 1984 saw Toronto's Dave Stieb start for the American League squad, facing off with fellow Canadian Charlie Lea of the Expos. A nice matchup, but there was a clearly more enticing one to be had - nineteen year old rookie sensation Dwight Gooden of the Mets against the ancient Niekro, over twice Doc's age. At least those tuning in got to eventually see Gooden add energy to the game with his three strikeouts in two innings. AL manager Joe Altobelli inexplicably didn't even get Niekro into the game despite the fact that he may have been the best pitcher in the game up to that point in the season. The image of Niekro warming up in the ninth inning, but not entering the contest was of great disappointment to many fans. (Interesting trivia - Niekro was named to five All-Star games in his career, and pitched to a total of four batters in those contests. Did nobody want to catch his floater?) Niekro won his first start after the break, but just blew up the next start, allowing twelve hits, two home runs, and seven earned runs in a loss to Texas. Knucksie struggled the rest of the way, with an ERA pushing 5.00. The Yanks actually picked up the pace in the second half, playing .638 baseball on the strength of a potent three/four batting order combo of Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield, who battled for the AL batting crown up to the last day of the season. Righetti settled nicely into his new role, with 31 saves and a 2.34 ERA. The bullpen would be his home for the rest of his career, and his 224 career Yankee saves ranked only behind Mariano Rivera in franchise relief rankings. Niekro's final 1984 numbers of 16-8, 3.09 were just fine, historical for his age. He ranked with Satchel Paige's 1952 (12-10, 3.07) and Hoyt Wilhelm's 1968 (4-4, 1.73) as the best seasons for 45-year olds. He would pitch another year in Pinstripes, winning another 16 games in 1985, including his 300th career victory on the last day of the season. When most fans think of Phil Niekro, they think of him as a Brave, the vast majority of his success coming with that franchise. His Hall of Fame plaque understandably displays him wearing a Braves hat. That being said, Niekro packed some great memories into his two seasons in New York, including that exciting first half of 1984.