The Blue Jays clinched their first-ever division title on Saturday October 5, 1985 in front of over 44,000 fans at Exhibition Stadium. It was an incredible moment, when George Bell dropped to his knees in left field after making the catch for the final out in a 5-1 victory over Billy Martin's New York Yankees. The Jays were division champions in their ninth year of existence.
But there was still one day to go in the regular season, and this story is about what happened on that day.
On Sunday the 6th, nobody on the Blue Jays side really had anything to play for. Toronto had clinched under skipper Bobby Cox and partied well into the night. With nothing at stake and the focus on an ALCS match-up with Kansas City, Cox rested all of his starters on Sunday, save for second baseman Damaso Garcia, and gave the late John Cerutti the first start of his Major League career.
The Yankees had been hoping this game would have decided the AL East crown if they had won on Saturday. They didn't, but this game still held meaning for them and in particular to the man starting for them that day, legendary knuckleballer Phil Niekro.
"Knucksie", as he was known around baseball, could have begged off this start. But he needed this win to reach the magic 300 mark for his career. He also knew at age 46, this could very well be the final game of his career.
This game meant even more than that for Niekro. His father Phil Sr. was extremely ill in Wheeling, West Virginia, his body broken by years of work in the mines. He had been drifting in and out of a coma for a few weeks. Phil Sr. taught both of his sons how to throw the knuckleball and inspired Phil and his now teammate Joe to become the winningest brother combination in Major League history.
A couple of weeks earlier the brothers had visited their father in hospital. He was in such bad shape according to the Website Guideposts, that Phil and Joe contemplated taking a leave of abscence from the Yankees to be with him in his final days.
Phil Sr. couldn't speak at that point, but when given a piece of paper and a pencil by the brothers scratched out the message "Win Happy". Phil took that to mean that his father wanted him to keep pitching.
However, when Phil Niekro rejoined the Yankees, he somehow lost the touch on his famous knuckleball and went winless in his next three starts. He only had one left, maybe in his entire career, on that Sunday October the 6th. And what a start it was.
Even though he was facing a depleted line-up, he was masterful in blanking the Blue Jays 8-0 on a three-hitter going to the bottom of the 9th. The fans at Exhibition Stadium were actually pulling for him to make history.
What we didn't know in the broadcast booth and the bulk of the fans probably didn't know is, Niekro had not thrown a single knuckleball through eight innings. Having lost confidence in the knuckler he threw everything else in his arsonal dating back to his youth - screwballs, curves, occasional fastballs away, "Slip Pitches", "Dead Fish" fastballs, anything he could come up with to keep the Blue Jays batters off balance.
This we did not really know until the post-game show, because many of these pitches had the same kind of crazy movement and were delivered in much the same way Niekro would throw his knuckleball.
Niekro quickly got the first two outs in the 9th. Then Tony Fernandez roped a fastball for a double. The next man up was Phil's former Atlanta teammate Jeff Burroughs. Out of the Yankees dugout came Phil's brother Joe. This drew a warm response from the fans who could see exactly what Billy Martin was up to. He wanted brother Joe as an honourary pitching coach to share in his incredible moment. Originally the plan had been for Joe to come in and pitch in relief if the game was close and Phil ran out of gas. His purpose though on this trip to the mound, was simply to ask Phil if he wanted to intentionally walk Burroughs.
Phil said no. Catch Butch Wynegar asked him what he was going to throw to the next batter. The "Answer", the knuckleball.
Three pitches later Burroughs was retired, the game was over and Phil Niekro had win number 300.
The Postscript. During the 7th inning, (the game was on radio in his room), Phil Niekro Sr. came out of his coma, looked at his wife, and said "Phil's pitching a heckuva game, ain't he!".
Phil Niekro went on to pitch the better part of two more seasons, and even had a very brief but ineffective stint with the Blue Jays. He won 18 more games over the rest of his career and finished it all up with one final game, back where it all began with Atlanta.
There were so many hilights and incredible moments over the 14 years that I was involved with the Blue Jays broadcasts, it is hard to rank them after the two World Series victories.
But Phil Niekro's 300th victory is one I will never forget.