Montreal Gazette - October 10, 1980

Astros hope hurler Niekro has Phils ‘knuckling’ under


By Michael Farber of The Gazette


HOUSTON – "Take a piece of paper and drop it from the upper' deck," Alan Ashby was saying. "Sometimes it wobbles, then it darts erratically. You lunge for it and it's someplace else. You grab here, there, all over. Sometimes you catch it, sometimes you don't."


Meet the knuckleball, as will be thrown often today (3:15 p.m.) to the Philadelphia Phillie hitters in the third game of the National League playoff by Astro pitcher Joe Niekro, as will be caught sometimes by Astro catcher Alan Ashby.


Charlie Lau, a former catcher and New York Yankee coach, said there are two theories to catching the knuckleball. Unfortunately, neither of them works.


Knows best way


Bob Uecker, a former catcher and now a broadcaster, said he knows the best way to catch a knuckler: wait until it stops rolling and pick it up.


How does it feel like catching hell?


"Like this," Ashby said, holding up a right index finger which resembles a fish hook, the byproduct of a Niekro knuckler Aug. 19, 1979 against the Expos. Ashby missed the final month of the season with the fracture, and the Astros, who led the National League West most of the season, never recovered.


But now this collection of 25 players to be named later has a chance to take a 2-1 lead over the Phillies with Niekro, a 20-game winner, pitching against Larry Christenson today in the Astrodome Astro-doom for opponents. Houston was 53-26 this year in games under glass.


Will the Phillies knuckle under?


"If the guy has a good knuckleball going, you can't hit it," Pete Rose said. "You have to hope he gets behind and comes in with a fastball or slider. Either that, or he'll throw a knuckler which doesn't knuckle. A knuckler that doesn't knuckle is dangerous for a pitcher. You can hit one out of any park, and that includes Yellowstone."


A knuckleball – the staple of only three major league pitchers' extant: Joe and Phil Niekro, and Charlie Hough – is thrown with the knuckles, which removes all spin from the ball, ideally.


The Force then takes over. Although the wind in the Dome officially is one mile per hour from the east, west, north and south, the knuckleball sails, jumps, genuflects and generally acts like one of those mechanical broncos at Gilley's down the road. "A butterfly with hiccups," Willie Stargell described it.


"I honestly don't know where the ball will go when I throw it," said Joe Niekro, who throws a harder knuckler than the others, and has complementary heaters, sliders and curveballs for the other 15 per cent of his deliveries. "I just throw for a zone, between the batter's knees and shoulders, get it close to the hitter, and hope,"


All of which isn't always pleasant for Ashby, the left-handed hitting catcher in manager Bill Virdon's two-platoon brigade.


Ashby has soft blue eyes, wears a softer blond mustache and drinks milk an unremarkable figure if not for two things:


1) The playoffs have made him a central character (as they have John Wathan and other Kansas City Royals. Just imagine a Coors World Series Kansas City vs. Houston).


2) He was a back-up catcher in Toronto the first two years the Blue Jays played baseball... such as it was.


But sometimes, or so one hears, it is difficult to soar like an eagle when you're surrounded by turkeys. Ashby, traded to Houston before the 1979 season, immediately responded by hitting .202, but raised his average to .256 this season against righthanders.


Niekro, who will make Ashby look silly at least once today, also has had your standard major league career: a personality conflict with Billy Martin in Detroit, sale by current Texas Ranger in-house genius Eddie Robinson, a rejection by those sharpie Chicago Cubs.


Only the knuckler makes him remarkable. Joe didn't always throw one, as did Phil. Oh, he tried some with the Cubs in 1969, but manager Leo Durocher told him if he insisted on throwing that silly pitch, he might try it in Tacoma.


So Niekro was all set to quit in 1972 when the Tigers demoted him, but his wife told him to get out of bed that summer morning and drive to Toledo. He relented, drove, to Toledo, and pitched a perfect game in his first appearance. He toyed with the knuckler' then, but first began to master its esoteric ways while playing winter ball that year.


He needed just seven more seasons – until 1979 – to become a 20-game winner with it.


"The knuckleball certainly saved my career," said Niekro, 35. "Now that I've been able to take command of it, it makes me as consistent as anyone in baseball."


Won 20th Monday


Niekro won his 20th game Monday in the National League West playoff, and although he was 0-2 (3.38 earned run) average against the Phillies, he lost, 2-1, once on a strikeout/passed ball (which goes with the territory) and another time on an infield out.


But Niekro did allow the only Phillie home run in the Dome this season, and he was asked yesterday if he expected the same hitter might torture him again.


Is the key to the game keeping Christenson in the park?


"Nah, Rose and probably (Larry) Bowa are their best knuckle ball hitters," Niekro said, "because they both take a short stroke."

Managing methods boon to Phils’ Green


By Dink Carroll


Dallas Green is one manager who doesn't worry about security, even if the Phillies fail to win the National League pennant. The Phillies are a difficult team to handle, and no one could have done a better job of managing them than he has done this season.


Green, who was the club's director of minor leagues and scouting before he replaced Danny Ozark in September of 1979, has no difficulty in communicating with his players. He tells them exactly what he is thinking, whether they like it or not, and most of the time they don't like it.


"Everybody on this team has to contribute if we're going to win," he kept reminding them during the season. "Baseball is that kind of a game, I know some of you could try harder."


He is aware that some of the players resent his methods, but he couldn't care less. He doesn't believe in babying them and he insists that they do things his way, or they won't play at all.


He doesn't seem to value his job as a manager and maybe that's where he has an edge. He knows he can go back to an executive position with the club, perhaps even as general manager, where he would be in a stronger position than he is now.


The Phillies finished first in the NL East in 1976, ‘77 and ‘78 under Ozark, then lost in the playoff for the pennant to the NL West champions. There was a feeling, fostered by the players and shared by the fans, that they couldn't win the pennant with Ozark as manager.


Never won series


The Phillies have won two pennants, in 1950 and 1952 (sic – actually 1915 and 1950), and have never won a World Series. If they get into the World Series this year, it will be a triumph for Green and proof that there wasn't anything wrong with his methods.


He is unique among managers in not seeking job security. Most of them want contracts for three years or more, and Tom Lasorda and Dick Willams were reported to be among them. It was hard to imagine Lasorda wearing anything but the Dodger blue, and the report was wrong. He signed a contract to manager the Dodgers again next season.


Williams was given an extension on his contract when the Expos climbed into first place last June, which would bind him to the club for at least another year unless he wants to depart and the club is willing to let him go. It may be true that he and John McHale don't agree on the merits of one or two players, and also that McHale doesn't favor multi-year contracts for managers. But neither Williams nor McHale has said anything to make anyone think Williams won't be here next season.


The Expos have come close two years in a row now and they could win the pennant next season. They are a young team and if it's possible to hold them together, they could be on top for years. Williams appreciates, that and he isn't likely to run away from that kind of a situation.


Some moves made


Some managerial moves have already been made and if there are any more firings and hirings, they will come between the end of the World Series and the baseball meetings in December.


When big Frank Howard, the former Dodger slugger who has been a coach with the Milwaukee Brewers in recent years, was appointed manager of the San Diego Padres last Monday, it recalled some remarks Danny Ozark made when Lenny Randle punched manager Frank Lucchesi of the Texas Rangers several years ago.


"I don't remember any player ever threatening Walt Alston when I was with the Dodgers," said Ozark. "But I remember one scene with Frank Howard and Leo Durocher. Howard was the Dodger first basemen then and Durocher was a coach. With his snapping tongue, Durocher's pet phrase for Howard was the 'big donkey.'


"One day Howard lifted Durocher up by the shirt collar and bumped his head against the roof of the dugout. Then he warned Durocher, 'Don't ever call me big donkey again.'"


Maybe all managers should be as big and as strong as Frank Howard.