This was going to be the season Joe Niekro had dreamed about, the year he and Phil would pitch side by side as family and teammates.
"He's not just my brother," Joe Niekro said tonight. "He's my best friend. I'd looked forward to this all winter."
As he spoke these words, he was sitting in a quiet New York Yankees clubhouse moments after owner George Steinbrenner had announced two major moves.
In one, Steinbrenner ended Joe Niekro's dream by placing Phil Niekro, 46, on waivers.
In another, the Yankees finally made a trade they had discussed since October, sending designated hitter Don Baylor to the Boston Red Sox for Mike Easler.
The brothers Niekro reacted bitterly to the news, especially since the move was made a day before $250,000 of Phil's $350,000 salary would have become guaranteed. Further, Joe Niekro said he signed with the Yankees because he wanted to play with Phil and thought he was going to get the chance.
Phil Niekro pitched in New York for two years after 20 years with the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves. He went 16-8 with a 3.09 ERA in 1984 and 16-12 with a 4.09 ERA last season. For his career, he is 300-250 with a 3.23 ERA and 3,197 strikeouts, seventh on the all-time list.
"How do you release a 16-game winner?" Joe Niekro asked, slumped in front of his locker. He appeared to be fighting his emotions as he added: "Of course, I'm mad about it. I have a right to be. If that's the way they treat winners around here, why should I want to pitch in a situation like this?"
After the announcement, Joe Niekro met briefly with Steinbrenner, who refused to talk to reporters, and said, "I didn't ask for a trade. Put it this way: I signed a contract, and I'm going to bust my butt for guys like Willie Randolph, Dave Winfield and Don Mattingly. I won't have a smile on my face, though."
This spring, Phil Niekro had a 5.40 ERA (14 hits and eight runs in 13 1/3 innings), but he pitched four shutout innings Thursday and had only one bad outing.
He was called to a meeting with General Manager Clyde King this afternoon and was asked to sign a 45-day waiver of the $250,000. But in the meeting, he said King made it clear he had no chance of making the team.
"Why did they even invite me down here?" Niekro asked. "Really, I had one bad outing. If I were over the hill or limping, it'd be a different story. I just don't think I pitched that badly. If I were 37, I don't think they'd even consider it. All a person looks for is the truth, and I don't think they were honest with me."
After making more than $500,000 last season, he refused to let his agent take the Yankees to arbitration this winter and even accepted a nonguaranteed contract. Now, just less than six months after he shut out Toronto for his 300th victory, his career probably is over.
"You start to lose faith in people," he said. "You wear the uniform, and you do the best you can. All the time, they knew I wasn't going to be here. They agreed I'd have gotten more if I'd gone to arbitration, but they won't tell you that. You're not dealing with a piece of meat. You're dealing with a human being."
Meanwhile, Baylor, 36, a favorite in the Yankees' clubhouse and around baseball, took the trade in stride.
"It's a situation where I'll end up playing every day in Boston," he said. "That's what I'm looking for. I'm going with a very good organization, and it's one of the teams I wanted to play for."
Baylor batted .231 in 142 games for the Yankees last season with 23 homers and 91 RBI.
Easler, 35, a left-handed hitter, will split the DH job with former Oriole Gary Roenicke. Easler batted .262 for the Red Sox last season with 16 homers and 74 RBI.