Chicago Tribune - October 10, 1980

Niekro hopes to keep ‘Martin rejects’ perfect


By Dave Nightingale, Chicago Tribune News Service


HOUSTON – Will 1980 turn out to be baseball's "Year of the Billy Martin Castoff"?


The Houston Astros hope so. They send out one of those Martin rejects, 20-game winner Joe Niekro, against the Philadelphia Phillies in the third game of the best-of-five National League playoffs Friday afternoon in the Astrodome [WLS-TV, Channel 7, 2 p.m.].


Kansas City's Larry Gura set the stage for Niekro Wednesday with his American League playoff victory over the Yankees. It was Gura's fourth victory over New York this year and eighth in nine decisions since he was axed by then-Yankee manager Martin in 1976. That was four years after Martin working in Detroit decided Niekro was "washed up" at 27.


JOE BROKE IN with the Cubs In 1967 and was 24-18 with them before leaving in April, 1969, traded first to San Diego and then to Detroit.


"There was a definite personality conflict between me and Billy in 1972," Niekro recalled Thursday. "And when he sent me down to the minors in midseason, I gave some serious thoughts to quitting.


"In fact, I might have quit if it wasn't for the inspiration of my wife, Nancy. She literally got me out of bed and drove me to Toledo [the Tigers' Triple-A farm team]."


Niekro pitched a perfect game in his first start for the Mud Hens.


"The perfect game didn't turn things around for me," Niekro said. "Things started to turn when I went to Puerto Rico in the winter of 1972 and started working hard on my knuckleball. I had always messed around with the knuckler, but I never got serious about it until that winter."


Joe moved from Toledo to Atlanta in 1973. And from Atlanta to Richmond the Braves' Triple-A farm in 1974. "That's went I really got my knuckler going.


"I owe an awful lot to my manager there, [the late] Clint Courtney. He put me out in the bullpen all season and had me use my knuckleball only in short relief, in pressure situations. It enabled me to get my confidence back."


But he got a vote of no confidence from the Braves, who peddled him to Houston in 1975.