Last night the St Louis Cardinals won the 2006 World Series, 4 games to 1. With that victory, the Cards also achieved the dubious distinction of being the champions with the fewest regular season wins. Their 83 victories usurped the previous low of 85 set by my favorite squad, the Minnesota Twins, back in 1987.
So on a night when I was waxing nostalgic about my club’s first ever world championship, I was surprised to learn a member of that team has just died.
Former major league pitcher Joe Niekro, Houston's career victory leader, died Friday, Astros president Tal Smith said. He was 61.
The two-time 20-game winner suffered a brain aneurysm Thursday and was taken to South Florida Baptist Hospital in nearby Plant City, where he lived. He later was transferred to St. Joseph's Hospital, where he died.
Niekro won a franchise-best 144 games in 11 seasons with the Houston Astros from 1975 to 1985, when he was traded to the New York Yankees. He was an All-Star in 1979, when he went 21-11 with a 3.00 ERA and followed up with a 20-12 record in 1980.
He beat the Dodgers in a one-game playoff that clinched Houston's first postseason berth in 1980. Seven years later, in his 21st season, he finally appeared in the World Series with the Minnesota Twins.
Niekro finished 221-204 with a 3.59 ERA, including 144-116 with a 3.22 ERA for the Astros.
Despite a long, successful career in the major leagues, Niekro will probably best be remembered for his getting caught with sand paper and an emery board while pitching for the Twins at Anaheim in an August 1987 game.
When the opposing Angels players complained about Niekro’s pitches having some unusual movement, home plate umpire (and St Paul native) Tim Tschida asked to see Niekro’s glove. As Niekro disgustedly tossed his glove to Tschida, it appeared he attempted to hide something in his back pocket. I will never forget the scene of four umpires surrounding Niekro on the pitcher’s mound as he emptied his pockets. As he emptied out his right pocket he threw his hands up like he had nothing. All of a sudden an emery board is seen flying threw the air with umpire Steve Palermo watching its flight the entire way. It was alleged that Niekro was scuffing the baseballs with that emery board and was subsequently ejected from that game and later given a suspension.
Niekro is survived by his brother, Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro, as well as son Lance, currently a first baseman for the San Francisco Giants.