There are a few things more important than winning a baseball game -- even if it's the 300th of your career.
"The nicest feeling of the day was when I heard that they took my dad out of intensive care this morning," Phil Niekro said today after beating the Toronto Blue Jays, 8-0, to become the 18th pitcher to win 300 major league games. "That was the best."
Phil Niekro Sr., 72, who taught his son how to throw his trademark knuckleball, has been sick for years and had emergency surgery about two weeks ago. He was in the Wheeling Park Medical Hospital in Wheeling, W.Va., as his son tried to gain entrance to an elite group.
"He is as much a part of me winning 300 games as I am," said Niekro. He and his brother, Joe, learned during the game that their father had been released from intensive care. The brothers will visit him Monday.
After his won his 299th, Niekro failed five times to get his 300th. But his father would have been proud of his 46-year-old son, even though he used his famous knuckleball only three times in becoming the oldest major leaguer to pitch a shutout (surpassing Satchel Paige by 113 days). A complete game, only four hits, with only three knucklers?
"I threw only three knuckleballs in the game, and those were when I was pitching to (Jeff) Burroughs (with two out) in the ninth," Niekro said. "I figured if I was gonna win 300 games, and I had won most of those with the knuckleball, I ought to get the last out with a knuckleball.
"I always wanted to pitch a game without throwing a knuckleball," Niekro said, "because a lot of people thought I couldn't get anybody out without it. Today my fast ball was moving.
"I said to Butch (Wynegar, the Yankees' catcher), 'Let's see if we can go an inning without throwing a knuckleball,' " said Niekro.
He was given a 3-0 lead before he took the mound, and he retired the Blue Jays in order in the first, with two strikeouts, then kept going. He used a screwball, a slow curve -- all his pitches are slow to a certain extent -- a blooper pitch, a slip pitch and a whole lot of guile.
Granted, the Blue Jays, who will open the American League championship series here Tuesday against Kansas City, started only one regular, Damaso Garcia. But they don't list the lineup you face in the record book.
The Yankees made it 5-0 in the fifth on Mike Pagliarulo's two-run homer to right field. Henry Cotto hit his first major league home run in the eighth off Bill Caudill to make it 7-0, and Don Mattingly (four for five) hit a homer, his 35th, in the ninth for his 145th RBI.
Burroughs was the last of Niekro's five strikeouts, which also moved him into seventh place on the all-time list (3,197) after he started the game tied with Ferguson Jenkins.
As the Yankees mobbed Niekro, a large portion of the 44,422 fans in Exhibition Stadium gave Niekro a standing ovation.
"I'm sure I'll look back on this (fondly), but us being eliminated yesterday was the letdown of the year," Niekro said.
Whether Niekro will pitch again is uncertain. He is a free agent and speculation has him going to manage the Atlanta Braves, with whom he played for 18 years.
"You win 16 games, it's tough to say you're done," Niekro said of his season. "Mentally, physically I'm fine, but it will depend on who I talk to. I always said that I don't want to hang on just to pick up a few more wins, but if the arm feels strong . . . "