The Quest for 300 : Agony After 299 Victories Can Make One a Lonely Number to a Pitcher

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nolan Ryan will attempt to become the 20th pitcher to win 300 games when he faces the New York Yankees tonight.

Was getting there half the fun?

Not always.

For some, that final step, from 299 to 300, became the longest. Part obstacle. Part obsession.

"The pressure builds because so much is made of it," Hall of Fame left-hander Warren Spahn said. "The pressure builds because so few pitchers have done it and you want it so badly.

"What I would tell Nolan is to get it over as quickly as possible. I mean, who knows? You might walk out and get hit by a car."

Spahn won 363 games, a record for left-handers. He won No. 300 on his first try with the then-Milwaukee Braves in 1961, a season in which he led the National League in victories, earned-run average, complete games and shutouts.

Steve Carlton also did it in his first attempt, Don Sutton his second. Tom Seaver did it with a flourish, winning four of his final five starts to reach 300 with the Chicago White Sox in 1985.

For others, however, it was a painful, tedious, frustrating final step, although only two of the 19--Lefty Grove and Early Wynn--never won again.

Wynn set a record for dashed hopes, needing eight appearances and nine months to go from 299 to 300, but two other recent stories also illustrate the mounting pressure and frustration.

--Phil Niekro, carrying the weight of his father's battle with lung cancer, needed five September starts before claiming No. 300 on the final day of the 1985 season. His inability to win in the first four attempts contributed to the New York Yankees' failure to win the division title.

--Gaylord Perry, released by the Atlanta Braves with 297 victories at the end of the 1981 season, thought his career was over until the Seattle Mariners, seeking a gate attraction, signed him three weeks into spring training of '82.

Perry, then 43, started 32 games that year. He won 10, including No. 300 on his first shot at it.

"I might never have gotten the chance if the American League hadn't expanded (to Seattle and Toronto in 1977)," said Perry, whose only offer after being released by the Braves came from the Mariners.

And it was an offer Perry cultivated, calling then-Mariner General Manager Dan O'Brien, who had been at the helm of the Texas Rangers when Perry pitched for that club.

Perry sold O'Brien on the marketing aspect of his 300-bid and agreed to a contract that was renewed every 30 days.

"It worked out fine," said Perry, now a coach at Limestone College in Gaffney, S.C. "I made it through that year and part of the next."

Perry spent 22 seasons in the major leagues. He began to think about 300 after winning 21 games and the Cy Young Award at San Diego in 1978, giving him 267 victories.

"I think when you get that close," he said of the 297 victories he had when Atlanta released him, "you owe it to yourself and your family, considering what you've put them through for 20 or so years.

"I had a chance and I'm glad I stayed with it, glad I did it. No one had done it for the 20 years since Early Wynn when I went to Seattle, and it was like a World Series for the club and the city. The players on that team were so young, I think they were probably more excited than I was.

"One of the things I'll never forget is President Reagan calling me the night before and saying it would be too late to call after the game but that he had enough confidence in me to call and congratulate me even before I pitched."

Perry retired with 314 victories. Some believe that many were attained with the assistance of foreign substances he applied to the ball. That might explain why he failed to receive the required number of votes for the Hall of Fame in his first two years of eligibility.

"I think 300 wins should be just like 3,000 hits," he said. "You should go into the Hall automatically, but it's hard to know what the writers are thinking.

"I mean, no one ever fined me or suspended me for throwing illegal pitches. How many times did the umpires search me without finding anything? Sure, I was disappointed (by the voting), but I've got other things to think about. Maybe next time."

Phil Niekro didn't know if there would be a next time when he was released after the 1983 season after spending 18 years with the Braves. At the time, he was 43 and had 268 victories.

Three hundred? Niekro said he was only thinking about 269, about proving to the Braves he could still pitch. George Steinbrenner, owner of the New York Yankees, gave him the chance. Niekro responded with 16 victories in 1984. He won his 15th of the 1985 season on Sept. 8 and needed one more for 300.

"My father was in intensive care in a West Virginia hospital, and no one knew how long he would live," said Niekro, now back with the Braves as the bullpen coordinator. "I wanted it for him, that was the only thing that mattered at that time."

Niekro had won No. 299 during an 11-game Yankee winning streak. On Sept. 12, New York beat Toronto to move to within 1 1/2 games of the Blue Jays in the American League East. The next day, Niekro lost, 3-2. He also lost two of his next three starts, getting no decision in the third.

The Yankees lost eight in a row and went to Toronto for the final weekend of the season needing a three-game sweep to win the division.

"The team was in a race and I couldn't win," Niekro said. "That made it harder, but the only thing I kept thinking about was my dad. I knew he couldn't hold on much longer. For his sake, I was disappointed in myself."

The Yankees won the first game of that final series, but were eliminated when they lost the next. Niekro was scheduled to pitch the final game and agreed to do it only when his brother, Joe, also a Yankee, assured him he would pitch relief if he needed it.

Niekro went to work with a lot on his mind: the quest for 300, his father's illness, the last day of his contract with the Yankees adding to the uncertainty of whether anyone would sign a 46-year-old knuckleballer if the Yankees didn't.

Despite the pressure, Niekro reached 300 with an 8-0 victory, becoming the oldest pitcher ever to pitch a shutout.

Niekro laughed as he recalled the victory and said, "My wife always reminds me that the Blue Jays all had hangovers that day from celebrating too much the night before, and she's right.

"In fact, they used mostly reserves and kids they had called up in September. I think Bobby (Cox, the Toronto manager then and a friend from their years together in Atlanta) was feeling sorry for me and wanted to make it easier."

Niekro didn't make it easier on himself. Inventing pitches as he went along, he threw only two knuckleballs, the pitch his father taught him, saving one for the last pitch of the game.

Joe Niekro was the first to the mound to congratulate him, carrying the news that his father had been released from intensive care that day and was aware of how the game had gone because Steinbrenner had arranged for Niekro's mother to receive the play-by-play via telephone at the hospital.

"There's a special feeling to winning 300 because so few pitchers have done it," Niekro said. "But knowing my dad had made it that far and that I would soon be handing him the ball from my 300th win gave it that much more significance."

Niekro, who won 318 games, retired at 48 and will be eligible for the Hall of Fame in 1992.

"Fortunately," said Niekro, who won 122 games after he was 40, "I threw a pitch that was easy on me, never had any arm problems and never went on the disabled list. I was always afraid that if I went on the DL someone would take my job.

"There were times I pitched in pain, but a lot of guys played hurt, that was the caliber of player you had then. Now you can fill two or three teams from the disabled list."

For Early Wynn, even now, at 70, having been elected to the Hall of Fame in 1972 after a career during which he won 20 or more games five times and pitched in the World Series with the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox, the frustration is evident in his voice as he recalls the struggle to reach 300.

"The faster you can do it, the better off you are," he said from his home in Venice, Fla.

"I knew that some way and some how I'd get it, but after a while you start thinking, 'What's happening here? Do I have anything left?' Your confidence starts to go, and the hitters know it.

"The frustrating thing is that it kept slipping out of my fingers. You live with all those games you should have won, and it can get to you if you spend too much time thinking about it.

"I mean, after I won 299, I lost a 1-0 game when Bill Monbouquette of the Red Sox pitched a no-hitter. I lost on a home run by (the Yankees') Elston Howard, and I lost when (White Sox shortstop) Luis Aparicio, of all people, made an error behind me."

Wynn was 42 when he won No. 299 with the White Sox on Sept. 8, 1962. He was 43 when he won 300 with the Indians on July 13, 1963.

A siege of gout, an inflammation of the joints, made his final seasons after winning 22 games and the Cy Young Award with Chicago in 1959, when he was 39, more difficult.

He was 13-12 in 1960, 8-2 while making only 17 appearances in 1961 and 7-15 in '62, when he made three futile starts after winning No. 299. He was released when the season ended to make room for younger pitchers.

Wynn paid his own way back to the White Sox camp in the spring of '63, but he failed to earn a contract and didn't receive an offer until June, when he persuaded Cleveland Manager Birdie Tebbetts, a friend and former teammate, to give him an opportunity.

Wynn made three more starts and a relief appearance before getting No. 300 in a 7-4 victory over the Kansas City Athletics, pitching five innings and giving up six hits and four runs.

"That was probably the worst game I had pitched in 10 years, but at that point it didn't matter," he said.

"I had waited so long that I was willing to take anything I could get.

"I'm not sure I understand the big difference between 299 and 300, but I do know that 300 puts you in the Hall of Fame, or should. I wanted it so that the New York writers couldn't keep me out, and I was only the 14th pitcher to do it."

In his last season, at 43, Wynn had a 2.28 earned-run average in 20 appearances, but No. 300 was the last victory of his career. Five more pitchers have since reached 300, and now Ryan is at the door.

Said Niekro: "It's one thing to keep lobbing knuckleballs up there like I did, but to still be throwing heat at his age, after all those innings, is unbelievable. There's no question he'll make it (300) and he deserves it.

"We've got a chair waiting. He'll be there sooner or later, but the one thing I'd tell him is to try to do it more sooner than later."

*RYAN'S HOPE: Nolan Ryan talks about going for his 300th victory tonight in Arlington, Tex. C6

300-GAME WINNERS

1 Cy Young 511 2 Walter Johnson 416 3t Christy Mathewson 373 3t Grover Alexander 373 5 Warren Spahn 363 6 Pud Galvin 361 7 Kid Nichols 360 8 Tim Keefe 344 9 Steve Carlton 329 10 Eddie Plank 327 11 John Clarkson 326 12 Don Sutton 321 13 Phil Niekro 318 14 Gaylord Perry 314 15t Mickey Welch 311 15t Tom Seaver 311 17 Old Hoss Radbourn 308 18t Lefty Grove 300 18t Early Wynn 300

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