OBSERVATIONS: Niekro always had hitters knuckling under

By Hal McCoy

UNSOLICITED OBSERVATIONS from The Man Cave waiting to see if Ryan Day and Dabo Swinney square off with boxing gloves at midfield before Friday’s Ohio State-Clemson game?

—It was 2007 and I had some fun while on a trip to San Francisco with the Cincinnati Reds.

I have a niece, Meghan Tomczak, who has an amazing resemblance to movie star Eva Longoria. Meghan worked in Los Angeles at the time and asked if she could spend the weekend with me in San Francisco.

After a game, we were walking side-by-side in the tunnel under the stands after the game when general manager Wayne Krivsky walked by. . .and nearly walked into a wall staring at us.

The next day he asked me, “Hal, how do you know Eva Longoria?”

That same night, Meghan and I were at the famous sports bar, Lefty O’Doul’s. I was 67 and Meghan was 28. Interim manager Pete Mackanin walked in and I said to Meghan, “Play along with me.”

Mackanin approached and I said, “Pete, I’d like you to meet my fiancee, Eva.” Mackanin did not know that I was married. He hemmed and hawed and looked Meghan up-and-down and finally said, “Good for you, Hal,”

—Heaven now has the best knuckleball pitcher ever born. And as a person and human being, Phil Niekro batted .420 and pitched a complete game every day of his life.

2020 cannot end quickly enough. Seven Hall of Fame baseball players passed away this year, the most ever. Gone are Tom Seaver, Joe Morgan, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Al Kaline, Whitey Ford and now Phil Niekro.

Niekro, 81 and known as ‘Knucksie’ because his feature pitch was a knuckleball, died in his sleep last Saturday after battling cancer.

Before he passed, he called his good friend, former Cincinnati Reds infielder Darrel Chaney. “He called me on Friday to say good-bye. We both cried for 20 minutes. I will never forget that call.”

Niekro is the last MLB pitcher to win 20 and lose 20 in the year. He was 21-20 for the 1979 Atlanta Braves. He made 44 starts, pitched 342 innings and had a 3.39 earned run average and pitched 23 complete games.

Phil won 318 games and his younger brother, Joe, who also featured a knuckleball, won 221. Their combined 539 wins is the most for a brother-brother combination in MLB history.

There was a day, though, when Joe got the better of Phil in a face-to-face match-up. Not only did Joe win, 5-4, but he hit a home run off Phil.

Amazingly, Niekro won 120 games after he was 40. And it had nothing to do with PEDs. It was that dancing, dipping, dodging, dastardly knuckleball.

—QUOTE: From Phil Niekro, who learned the knuckleball from his father, who worked in a coal mine near Blaine, Ohio: “I remember going to see my dad pitch against other coal-mining teams, and he was successful with the knuckleball. I saw how bad guys would look like swinging, and how guys talked about how he could throw every day and didn’t hurt his arm. That’s how I grew up learning.”

—Willie Mays made that catch-of-a-lifetime in the 1954 World Series against Cleveland’s Vic Wertz in front of the 483-foot sign in the Polo Grounds.

Yes, 483 feet. That’s how far the center field wall was from home plate in the Polo Grounds. Mays played 399 games in that park and he had 660 career home runs. Never, though, did he clear that center field wall.

From 1923 until the New York Giants left town for San Francisco in 1962, only four players cleared the wall — Hank Aaron, Lou Brock, Joe Adcock and Luke Easter.

Luke Easter? Yep. He did it for the Homestead Grays in the Negro American League against the New York Cubans in 1948. The Polo Grounds was the Cubans’ home field.

Luscious Luke, as he was known, was purchased from the Grays by Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck in 1949.

The Polo Grounds? Very short and very long. It was 279 feet down the left field line and 258 down the right field line. But it was 456 feet to left center and 449 to right center. . .and 483 to dead center.

—QUOTE: From baseball maverick, Bill Veeck, the man who integrated the American League with Cleveland by signing Larry Doby, Satchell Paige and Luke Easter out of the Negro Leagues: “Baseball is a boys’ game that makes grown men cry.”

—Humor me on this one because it is well-documented that I wear an orange helmet with no decal on to bed at night.

Toward the end of Sunday’s Cleveland Browns-New York Jets telecast, I turned off the sound. I was irritated that the announcers kept saying that the Jets beating the Browns was a huge upset.

No, it wasn’t. Those weren’t the Cleveland Browns. Due to COVID-19 protocol, the Jets beat the Browns Taxi Squad. And the Browns still might have won if quarterback Baker Mayfield hadn’t fumbled away the football on the team’s last two possessions.

—A stolen line: ‘We hired Greg Maddux to paint our house and all he painted were the corners.’

—Stolen Line II: If Todd Coffey pitched for Detroit when Charlie Maxwell and Tom House were there, if they batted seventh, eighth and ninth the box score would have read: Maxwell, House, Coffey.

—Hall of Famer Hank Aaron recently received The Stan Musial Lifetime Sportsmanship Award. And why not. Aaron played 3,298 major league’s game and was never ejected by an umpire, never thrown out of a game.

When Mel Ott managed the New York Giants he was ejected twice in one day — both games of a doubleheader. And former manager Bobby Cox was ejected 162 times during his managerial career, the all-time record.

—QUOTE: From former manager Bobby Cox, ejected 162 times from Major League games: “Most umpires are good about letting the argument go, but you can only go on for so long, or go so far. If you don’t leave it alone after a minute or two, you’re in trouble. I had trouble leaving it alone, I guess.”

—The San Diego Padres obviously are all-in for 2021. They have made trades for pitchers Blake Snell and Yu Darvish. That probably eliminates Trevor Bauer landing in San Diego.

And with Snell and Darvish gone, won’t teams looking for starting pitching be camped on Cincinnati GM Nick Krall’s porch pleading for a deal for Sonny Gray or Luis Castillo?

—Proof that 2020 is a wacked sports year? The Northwestern basketball team is 3-and-0 in the Big Ten, its best start since 1967-68. And Michigan State, ranked in the Top 20, is 0-and-3 in the Big Ten.

Add to that the face that the University of Kentucky is 1-and-6, the worst start to a season for an SEC basketball team since Ole Miss in 1988-89. Both Northwestern and UK are nicknamed the Wildcats.

UK’s Wildcats have lost to Richmond, Kansas, Georgia Tech, Notre Dame, North Carolina and Louisville. Said coach John Calipari, “For making this schedule I should slap myself in the face.” (I know a couple dozen UK fans who would volunteer to do it for him.)

—A stunning fact: The starting five for the University of Wisconsin basketball team is older than the starting five for the NBA’s Chicago Bulls.

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