added 11/1/2006 by James Anderson
When the word came down that former Astros pitcher Joe Niekro had passed away from a brain aneurysm at the age of 61, the first feeling that hit me was shock followed by sorrow. As I've had time to collect my thoughts and think about what Joe Niekro meant to the fans of Houston I was touched by a strange feeling that we fans didn't seem to really appreciate what Joe accomplished for the Houston Astros franchise after he was acquired from the Atlanta Braves on April 6, 1975.
When talking about former great Astros pitchers, names like Nolan Ryan, Mike Scott, Larry Dierker. J.R. Richard and Mike Scott always seems to be the center of discussion of who was the better of the group. Each of the above pitchers certainly had a right to be considered among that group and rightly so. Not so it seemed with Joe Niekro. Sure his name crept into the conversation from time to time, but we seemed to have considered Joe just a little bit lower among that former group just mentioned and I really don't know why.
In the fall of 1979 when the Astros Tal Smith acquired fire balling righthanded pitcher Nolan Ryan from the California Angels to team with James Rodney Richard many in the National league immediately dubbed the duo the greatest one-two punch since Koufax and Drysdale. Ironically before the 1980 season was half way over, Astros pitcher J.R. Richard had already succumbed to a stroke that abruptly ended his career and pitcher Nolan Ryan continued to be plagued with the same problems that plagued him in the American League, nagging injuries and wildness finishing the 1980 season with an unimpressive 11-10 won/lost record.
In the meantime, Joe Niekro quietly became the ace of a staff that was supposed to be anchored by the two fireballing Richard and Ryan with Niekro finishing the season with 20 wins and 11 losses. Not only that, but in his last start of the season against the Los Angeles Dodgers in game number 163 because both the Astros and Dodgers had finished the regular season with identical won/loss records, Joe Niekro would pitch and complete game victory in a one game playoff with the Dodgers that became the most important win in the entire history of the Astros franchise. By defeating the Dodgers 7-1, Joe Niekro put the Houston Astros in the National League playoffs for the first time in the team's history.
The 20 wins that Joe registered in 1980 came on the heels of 21 victories in 1979 becoming the first Astros pitcher in team history to put up two 20 win seasons. Joe would continue to be a productive pitcher for the Astros for the next four seasons. But, finally Joe and the Astros parted company on September 15, 1985 when he was traded to the New York Yankees for an unproven minor league pitcher named Jim Deshaies.
As Joe's career was winding down while pitching for the Minnesota Twins he was caught in an unfortunate situation when he was found with a file in his pocket by the umpires while on the mound and was ejected and suspended for 10 games. Many fans including myself remembered how Joe had discussed in the past the importance of keeping his nails filed continuously and filed in just a certain way to be able to grip his knuckleball pitch properly. I was convinced then and am still convinced now that Joe was doing the same thing he always did with that file which was to continue to groom his nails for that just right fit to grip his knuckler properly and simply forgot that he put the file in his back pocket. End of story.
On May 4, 1988, Joe Niekro was given his outright release by the Minnesota Twins and his pitching career came to an end.
The point of these thoughts upon hearing of the untimely passing of Joe Niekro was to reflect on just how important he was to the success of the Astros franchise and to remember Joe Niekro's memorable accomplishments while wearing the Astros uniform.
Joe was responsible for putting the Astros in the playoffs for the first time in team history and the first to put together two 20 win seasons in a row.
Not even Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan nor Astros great pitchers Larry Dierker, J.R. Richard or Mike Scott ever accomplished that feat.
Everyone seems to remember Mike Scotts no-hitter against the Giants in 1986 to seal the Western Division title for the Astros but for some reason many don't recall the pitcher who pitched the Astros into the post season for the first time in team history on October 6, 1980 before a very hostile Los Angles crowd at Dodger stadium.
I recall that victory against the Dodgers vividly. Astros manager Bill Virdon had called in his relief pitchers early from the bullpen for fear of them being injured while be pummeled with debris from the angry mob at Dodger stadium once Joe sealed the complete game victory for the Astros.
When one thinks about it and takes time to look at the numbers that Joe Niekro put up while pitching for the Astros he conceivably was the greatest pitcher in Astros history. He certainly qualified for being in the top two or three. I wished we could have appreciated Joe more for the great accomplishments while pitching for the Astros.
We should never take life for granted. Lives can so easily be snuffed out any time. Joe Niekro's death was so untimely. It seemed that Joe would still be around for many, many more years.
I am at least thankful that the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame was the first to finally step forward and honor the man for his great accomplishments with the Astros. More should have been done. Joe accomplished several firsts in an Astros uniform and there can only be one "first".
I want it to be known that we thank you Joe Niekro for what you brought to the Houston Astros and the great things you accomplished for the team out there on the mound.
You were one of the greats Joe! God Bless you and your family. We will all miss the "ol knuckler" for a long, long time.