The 300th Win
His dad was sick in the hospital—the person who taught him how to throw a knuckleball. Now, he had to make it count. The inspiring story behind Phil Niekro's emotional victory.
Then he grew serious. "Baseball is more than just fun, Son. Remember, you want to earn your dollar. You got to work for it."
A few years later Jo-Jo, whom we called plain Joe now that he was grown, made it to pro ball as a pitcher. Dad couldn't have been prouder. Two sons in the big leagues.
Joe and I were fortunate enough to go on to have solid careers. In 1985 we found ourselves together playing for the New York Yankees. What's more, by mid-September I was approaching 300 career wins, a hall-of-fame milestone for a pitcher, and, more importantly, the team was in the thick of a pennant race.
There was one problem: Dad was in the hospital, terribly sick. All those hard years in the mine had exacted a price. He had already lost a leg. Now he had internal bleeding, blood clots in his lungs, pneumonia, everything.
When Mom called to tell us Dad had slipped into a coma, she was crying so hard she could hardly explain herself.
Joe and I hopped the first plane home. We got to the hospital just after Dad received the last rites. The Big Bear was skin and bones, his dulled eyes half open, and a tangle of tubes attached to him. Joe and I stayed with him three days and nights, talking to him. But if he heard us, he gave no sign.
The fourth morning I faced a decision. I was slated to pitch that night—my three hundredth career victory if I won. There was a lot of media interest and fan excitement. Only an elite handful of pitchers had ever reached that many victories.
The season was winding down, and who knew if I would be on the roster next year? At 46, I was a relic by baseball standards. I wanted to help the Yanks win the division and bag number 300. I wanted it for Dad.
Yet how could I leave The Big Bear's side when he was so near death? He would want me to play ball no matter what, I knew, but I needed to hear that from him. I leaned over the bed and explained the situation. "Dad," I finished, "I'm afraid I'll never see you again. What should I do? Can you hear me?"
No response. Nothing. Just the rhythmic beeping of a monitor. I closed my eyes tight and prayed, Please, Lord, let him answer me!
"Look!" Joe cried. "He's moving his fingers!"
Dad's fingers twitched on the sheets.
"Do you want a pencil and paper?" I asked. "Blink your eyes once for yes, twice for no." Dad blinked slowly, once.
Joe dug around in his bag and came up with a pad and pencil. Carefully we put them in Dad's hands. Very slowly he formed letters. After a few painstaking minutes, the pencil fell from his fingers. He had written: "WIN...HAPPY."
The effort had exhausted him, but Joe and I knew what we had to do. We caught the next flight back to New York, just in time for me to take the mound at Yankee Stadium. In my back pocket I had Dad's scrawled message. Nothing was going to stop me from winning number 300.
Nothing except the knuckleball.
I just didn't have a good pitch that night. As they say, my knuckler wasn't knuckling. Four games later, on my next start, I failed again to win number 300. On October 2 I got another no decision. Something had gone out of my knuckler. I wasn't getting batters out with it.
Between starts I rushed back to Dad's bedside. He was still in a coma. He hadn't responded to anyone since that day he wrote the note. I promised him I would give it one more try.
On October 6 I made my last start of the season, in Toronto against the Blue Jays. They had already beaten us out for the division title. It would be my last shot at 300 that year, perhaps forever. I made a hard decision. I laid off the knuckleball.