Baseball : Niekro Brothers Can't Figure Out Why Yankees Released Phil

In the soap opera that is without end, the New York Yankees released Phil Niekro just 24 hours before they would have had to guarantee $250,000 of his $350,000 contract.

They ended up having to play him for only 45 days of spring training, but it wasn't the dollars that enraged the Niekro brothers--who were looking forward to pitching together for the first time in their pro careers--as much as it was the lack of sense.

"How do you release a 16-game winner?" a furious Joe Niekro asked when the decision was announced Friday night. "If that's the way they treat winners around here, why should I want to pitch here?"

The younger of the Niekro brothers reportedly stormed into the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., office of owner George Steinbrenner to ask that question but later said he had not demanded to be traded, that he would stay and give 100% on behalf of professionals such as Willie Randolph and Dave Winfield.

His brother, meanwhile, said he had been treated like a "piece of meat," that he was given a new contract only so he could be "used as bait" in the Yankees' attempt to sign brother Joe, a free agent at the time.

"I could have taken the Yankees to (salary) arbitration and won," Phil Niekro said, "but I didn't want to cause problems. I guess I should have known better. I didn't have a chance (this spring). I could have pitched 25 shutout innings and not made the team.

"The decision was made. Why'd they even invite me down here? Well, they won't find anyone who will win more games than I can."

Niekro, who will be 47 Tuesday, had a 5.40 earned-run average for 13 spring innings, but he pitched four shutout innings Thursday.

He won 16 games each of the last two seasons. Only eight American League pitchers had more wins last season.

The Yankee media corps reported that this was one more decision made without the approval of the manager, who for the time being is Lou Piniella.

Rookie Bob Tewskbury, 6-5 at Albany and 3-0 at Columbus last season, will replace Phil Niekro in a suspect rotation, joining Ron Guidry, Joe Niekro, Ed Whitson and either John Montefusco, who missed almost all of last season with a hip injury, or Tommy John, who was released twice last season--by the Angels and the Oakland A's.

The Yankees are also said to be pursuing either Jerry Reuss of the Dodgers, Moose Haas of the Milwaukee Brewers or Tom Seaver of the Chicago White Sox.

Reuss is thought to be unavailable because of the uncertainty surrounding the comeback attempt of Alejandro Pena.

The Brewers, who moved two rookies (Juan Nieves and Bill Wegman) into their rotation and are hopeful of adding a third (Dan Plesac) in the bullpen, are definitely expected to trade Haas before opening day. Milwaukee wants a prospect package in return. The very interested A's are thought to have the best shot at satisfying the requirement.

Seaver would not come cheaply, but he continues an attempt to force the White Sox's hand, desiring to finish his career in either Boston or New York, close to his Connecticut home.

Informed that he will be Chicago's opening-day pitcher, Seaver said, "My No. 1 priority is to be traded."

Add Yankees: By trading Don Baylor to the Boston Red Sox for Mike Easler, New York's realigned platoons now have Easler sharing the designated hitter assignment with Gary Roenicke, while Ken Griffey and Henry Cotto will platoon in left field.

Baylor, unhappy as a platoon DH, should join Jim Rice and Tony Armas in demolishing Fenway Park's left-field wall. In 82 career games--the equivalent of a half-season--at Fenway, Baylor has 17 homers, 65 runs batted in, a .350 batting average and a .555 slugging percentage.

Question: Was he taking advantage of Fenway's cozy dimensions or an often-beleaguered Boston pitching staff? Answer in October.

Detroit Tigers shortstop Alan Trammell is worried about his shoulder.

He's also worried that he continues to worry.

"I've been playing a lot of mind games, and I can't do that if I want to play," Trammell said the other day.

The disintegration of a defense that formed the foundation for the Tigers' 104 victories in 1984 has paralleled the apparent collapse of Trammell's confidence in his ability to make the tough throw.

Trammell, the MVP of the 1984 World Series, had been experiencing shoulder discomfort for much of the previous two seasons.

He had surgery to repair exterior weaknesses in the rotator cuff in the winter of '84 but continued to have problems not represented by his 1985 fielding percentage, which was second among American League shortstops to Chicago rookie Ozzie Guillen.

Trammell's inability and/or unwillingness to cut loose was seen on long throws from the hole and as the middle man in potential double plays.

Only Oakland, the Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers converted fewer double plays than the Tigers last season.

Now, in the new spring, Trammell has been in and out of the lineup, complaining of pain. An orthopedist said Friday that Trammell has an inflamed tendon below the right shoulder blade.

Manager Sparky Anderson, who is without options at shortstop and is reportedly seeking ways to regenerate Trammell's confidence and fortitude, met with Trammell the other day to say he wants him to play as he is rather than not play at all.

"I was happy to hear that," Trammell told beat reporter Vern Plagenhoef. "I had to hear that. I've been like a baby. It's been an embarrassment to me.

"I'm hoping the shoulder will get better. If not, it could be a long year, but I've come to the conclusion that if I'm 100% or not, I have to play the best I can.

"Maybe I'm not up to being the shortstop I was a few years ago, but this will have to do."

Trammell has not been alone in his misery.

Kirk Gibson has made only one outfield start this spring because of shoulder inflammation, but the Tigers believe Gibson will be ready for the season, which is not to say the defense will be.

The Tigers were last in fielding last season. Anderson blamed it on too much complacency and too little concentration. Now, having watched the team make 26 errors in its first 20 spring games, he has washed his hands of the subject--at least publicly.

"We have to go with pitching and thunder and forget about the defense," said the man who challenged reporters to name a better defense in '84.

"If guys can't catch the ball," Anderson continued, "there's nothing I can do about it. We must not be a very good defensive team. We've got the record to prove it."

Texas lost its opening-day pitcher when Charlie Hough broke his right little finger shaking hands with a friend.

Said Hough, who will be out three weeks: "I wish I'd been hit by a line drive. That would have been more heroic."

The Rangers will start rookie pitchers in their first three games of the season--Jose Guzman, Bobby Witt and Ed Correa.

Said Manager Bobby Valentine: "They've paid the tuition with their ability. Now, the education begins."

In the same class is right fielder Pete Incaviglia, jumping to the majors from Oklahoma State.

Incaviglia, who has tied a Texas record by hitting six spring homers, was reflecting on the fact that he hadn't been invited to try out for the '84 Olympic team and was dismissed as a pro candidate by a number of clubs.

"Scouts are like women," he said. "They're always telling fairy tales."

Indigestion: The Rangers swallowed $690,000 in contract guarantees when they released Burt Hooton. The Atlanta Braves are reportedly ready to release Len Barker, swallowing the final three years of his contract--a mere $2.8 million. The Baltimore Orioles will reportedly swallow $500,000 and release Wayne Gross.

The sensational spring pitching of another Kansas City Royal, Scott Bankhead, has revived negotiations with San Francisco concerning a trade that would send pitcher Mark Gubicza to the Giants for outfielder Chili Davis. Bankhead, a right-hander in only his second year as a pro, has not given up a run this spring.

The Montreal Expos are suddenly concerned about first baseman Andres Galarraga, their touted rookie. Galarraga had one hit in his first 31 at-bats, prompting the Expos to call in an eye doctor and ask Atlanta about the availability of veteran Chris Chambliss, who finds Bob Horner and Ted Simmons ahead of him and is definitely available.

At 40, Davey Lopes brings the perspective of 14 years in the majors to his job of Chicago Cubs role player and base-stealing coach.

"I like teaching," said the man who holds a degree in education from Washburn University.

"The tough part is finding someone who will listen to you. Athletes of today are sometimes reluctant to listen to constructive criticism."

On successive days last week, the Cubs lost three catchers--Steve Christmas, with a concussion suffered when he encountered Darrell Miller's knee in a play at the plate; Jody Davis with a groin bruise suffered when hit by a foul tip, and Steve Lake, who was knocked unconscious when hit by a foul tip.

This left the job to Mike Martin, an eight-year minor league veteran who reflected on the casualty list and said:

"I'm going to lock myself in the room and order room service."

Chris Brown, the Giants' talented third baseman, has teammates and management mystified by his tendency to turn minor injuries into extended absences from the lineup.

Teammates privately call him "The Tin Man" because of his alleged lack of heart.

When Brown missed a recent game in Palm Springs after being hit in the neck by a bad-bounce grounder during infield practice, the San Francisco Examiner quoted an anonymous Giant as saying: "A fly must have landed on his neck."

Brown missed 31 games as a 1985 rookie but still led the Giants in game-winning hits. He was second on the club in RBIs with 62, third in home runs with 16 and first in batting average at .271. He led National League third baseman in fielding percentage.

"If he ever plays 150 games," Manager Roger Craig said, "there's no doubt he'll drive in 100 runs and be the All-Star third baseman."

Roger McDowell, the New York Mets' 6-1, 175-pound relief pitcher, pulled into a hamburger place last week and ordered two quarter-pounders, one filet of fish, two cheeseburgers, one large bag of fries, one large ice tea, one milk shake and one cherry pie. All for himself.

Asked why only one bag of fries, McDowell said: "Well, I didn't want to fill up."

Add McDowell: The 25-year-old right-hander who saved 17 games last year will apparently need his strength. The Mets are uncertain about the availability of Jesse Orosco, who remains plagued by elbow problems, and plan to initiate relief by committee, following the St. Louis Cardinals' 1985 example.

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