A Saturday Night at Victory Field
By Mike Lopresti
August 2, 2015 — Consider the past weekend at Victory Field, where the endless variables of baseball were on display. Consider Saturday night, for instance, at the sold out ballpark.
In the bullpen, a 21-year-old phenom with a fastball in the high 90s was warming up for his first Triple-A start with the Indians.
“I think it’s an honor to be able to move up; just another learning experience,” Tyler Glasnow would say later of his advancement to Indianapolis. “I’m not looking too far into the future. I’m just trying to live in the now.”
In the dugout, a 22-year-old prospect with a linebacker’s body and big bat was getting ready for his first Triple-A start with the Indians at first base.
“Different clubhouse, different teammates, it can get you out of your comfort level a little bit,” Josh Bell would say later of his Indy opening night. “Of course, you want to succeed right from the get-go. But that’s not the game.”
In centerfield’s PNC Plaza, a 76-year-old Hall of Famer who threw a knuckleball that would barely break the speed limit on I-70 was signing 500 autographs on Signature Saturday.
“I guess it’s something that they can never take away from me,” Phil Niekro would say later of his spot in Cooperstown. “There’s a lot of guys walking around with World Series rings. There’s not too many walking around with Hall of Fame rings.
“But it wasn’t the greatest thing that ever happened to me. The greatest thing that ever happened to me was when my dad taught me that knuckleball in the backyard when I was 11 years old.”
Dreams to come, and dreams of the past. The fans of Indianapolis had a chance to spend time with both.
There was the lean 6-8 fireballer with size 16 shoes. A young man whose mother – a college gymnastics coach in California – still has her son’s letters from his elementary school years; a little boy’s scribblings of how much he wanted to grow up and be a big league baseball player one day. As a freshman in high school, Glasnow was 5-7. By graduation day, he was 6-7. And now he is the No. 1 prospect in the Pirates organization, and has given up only five home runs in 192 minor league innings the past two years.
There was the muscular 6-2, 237-pound hitter, who grew up down the street from where the Dallas Cowboys train in Texas. Sounds like a natural football story, but Bell’s father was a receiver in college and after too many injuries, decided if he ever had a son, another sport would be a good idea. And now Josh Bell is the Pirates’ No. 3 prospect, and drove in 60 runs at Double-A Altoona this summer.
But there was also the gray-haired son of a coal miner, who grew up with no idea that he would one day own 318 victories. Whose pitch, if it did not flutter enough, would sometimes look as a big as a beach ball to the batters. Pitcher Joe Niekro had one home run in 973 major league at-bats. He hit it off his brother Phil.
Glasnow is on a well-planned and seemingly inevitable path to the Pirates’ rotation. Bell has been converted from the outfield to first base, because the Pirates want his bat in the lineup one day, and have you noticed the Pittsburgh outfield lately? With Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco, no vacancies.
What was Phil Neikro doing at that age? Working as a reliever for the Double-A Jacksonville Braves of the South Atlantic League, hoping not to get released.
So how did Victory Field work out for both ends of this baseball spectrum?
The young pitcher went 5 1/3 innings, showed his talents by striking out seven Charlotte Knights, but also gave up nine hits and four runs, one earned.
“I think today honestly was one of those days – and it kind of sucked that it was in my debut – that nothing really felt so good. I honestly only had a fastball,” Glasnow said. “I think some of it had to do with different adrenaline coming out here.”
Said manager Dean Treanor, “I’m going to put it off on nerves. First time at this level. I’m sure he’s going to do better his next time out. This was to get his feet wet. It’s great to have him here, but I’m sure after tonight he understands he’s got some things to work on.”
The young first baseman went 0-for-5. Through the first 12 innings, anyway. In the 13th inning, Bell bounced a single up the middle to drive in the winning run in a 6-5 victory. That’s the way it is in baseball; you struggle for four hours and then end up getting ice water poured over your head as the hero.
It doesn’t get much better than that,” Treanor said.
“It’s not something I had planned on. I was just trying to get that first hit,” Bell said afterward. “The game can beat you up, and then put you on a cloud in a heartbeat.”
As Glasnow and Bell did their work on the first night of their lives in Triple-A ball, Niekro sat above the field in a suite and told stories.
How today’s generation, reared to study radar guns and worship 100 mile-an-hour heat, doesn’t understand what the knuckler did. “Not too many guys know about it because not too many guys have faced it,” he said. “I think hitters will talk all day about facing fastball pitchers, slider and curveball and changeup guys. When it comes to knuckleballs, there’s not much they can remember or even talk about.”
How much the 121 victories after the age of 40 mean to him. “To me, it shows there is no age limit in this game.” And also the 539 combined victories between Joe and himself – making them the winningest siblings in major league history. “That’s something I’m very, very proud of.”
How the knuckleball was a boost to good health, so never mind the ridicule some bestowed upon it. “Maybe I didn’t throw hard enough to get a sore arm. I never had any arm problems. I didn’t care what people thought of me throwing the knuckleball, I didn’t care what people called me. That was the way I could get guys out in the big leagues.”
And he talked of the man who taught him the knuckleball. How Phil Niekro, Sr. had never been in a plane in his life until he flew to Atlanta when Joe came to town with the Cubs to face Phil and the Braves. As fate would have it, the brothers faced one another for the first time.
“I thought he was going to have a heart attack. He couldn’t breathe,” Phil said of the moment his father found out his sons were to pitch against each other. “Both his boys are pitching in the big leagues and they’re going to pitch against other? He stayed up all night. He went to the ballpark the next day in his gray suit he had pressed all night. I beat Joe, and I called my mother after the game. She says, ‘That’s right, you’re supposed to win the first game, you’re the oldest. Now, Joe wins the next one.’”
Phil also told the story of the fall of 1985. Phil Sr. lay seriously ill in a Wheeling, W.V. hospital, his sons at his bedside, night after night. Phil, with the Yankees by then, was at 299 wins, and agonizing whether he should leave his father’s side and return to New York for 300.
His father had been unable to speak for days, but started moving his hand, wishing to write something. Phil found a pencil and piece of paper and his father scrawled out, nearly illegibly, “Win. Happy.”
“Which meant,” Phil said, “if I’d go win the game, he’d be happy.”
Phil went to New York…and lost. He lost again, and again, and again. Then came the final day of the season.
“I have one last chance,” he said. “I’m 46, it’s the last year of my contract. I think it might be my last start in baseball. I’ve got to win because I’ve got that piece of paper, though I couldn’t read it anymore because I’d taken it out so many times. Me and Joe stayed up all night talking about the game. We didn’t get to bed until 4 a.m. It was getting light.”
That Sunday afternoon in Toronto, Niekro shutout the Blue Jays for No. 300. Back in Wheeling, the ailing father who had not spoken in weeks was following the game and suddenly looked at his wife in the eighth inning and said, “He’s pitching a hell of a game.”
After the victory, Phil flew back to Wheeling, “I walk in the hospital, and he was laying in bed with a smile on his face. I gave him the ball and the cap.”
The elder Niekro would recover and live nearly three more years, time for Phil to squeeze out a couple of more seasons and Joe to pitch in the World Series.
“He’d seen one son win 300 games and he’d seen one son pitch in the World Series. He’d seen all he wanted to see, and he left,” Phil said. “I couldn’t tell that story for so many years. I couldn’t get through it.”
And so it went this past vibrant weekend, when Indianapolis swept Charlotte. Fireworks on Friday, when the Indians won 5-1 despite going 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position. Free hotdogs for the kids on Sunday, when Angel Sanchez won for the 13th time this season, matching the high in all of minor league baseball.
And in between, a Saturday night which began with Niekro throwing the ceremonial first pitch to his old Yankee catcher and current Indians hitting coach Butch Wynegar, and ended with Bell’s walk-off single.
How much Bell did know about the Hall of Fame special guest? Not much. “I feel bad about that. I wish I would have been a little bit more of a fan growing up,” he said.
But he did know the pitch that was so good to Niekro. And he did remember facing knuckleballer R.A. Dickey of the Mets in spring training.
“I hit the ball about four feet,” he said. “I’m glad more pitchers don’t throw it.”
He and Glasnow have their whole careers ahead. Phil Niekro long ago came, spent 24 years, and went. They are of different times and different worlds, but they were connected by baseball one special night in Victory Field.
(Click here to view an interview Niekro did Aug. 1 with longtime Indians broadcaster Howard Kellman.)
Mike Lopresti is a Ball State University graduate and Richmond, Ind. native and resident. He was a sports columnist for Gannett newspapers and USA Today for 31 years, and covered 30 World Series and 33 Major League Baseball All-Star Games. He is a voter for Baseball Hall of Fame. When he retired he was 16th in nation in seniority on Baseball Writers Association of America.