When baseball historians attempt to categorize the 1987 major-league season, they will face a number of choices. The grand old game’s 112th professional season may be recorded as the year of rabbit balls, corked bats, beanballs or emery boards and sandpaper capers. Amid a rash of controversies, the 26 teams have managed to concentrate on the game long enough to sustain stirring pennant races—particularly in the American League East and the National League West. But the action in baseball’s league offices has been equally compelling. By week’s end the offices had confiscated more than six balls and three bats and had suspended two pitchers for using emery boards and sandpaper in suspicious ways.
For Canadians, the season’s uniqueness was underlined last week by two events. The Toronto Blue Jays acquired 48-year-old knuckle-ball pitcher Phil Niekro, one year after he wrote scathingly of Canadian baseball fans. And the Montreal Expos’ vice-president and general manager, Murray Cook, 46, resigned for “personal and family reasons.” Explained Cook: “My three kids need me to be with them during this time of separation from my wife.”
The right-handed Niekro, second on the all-time list for home runs allowed, started for the Jays in Toronto on Aug. 13 against the Chicago White Sox, giving up three runs in 5% innings in a 103 loss in front of more than 45,000 fans. In KnuckleBALLS, his ghost-written autobiography, Niekro called Canada “a colony of the United States,” de-
scribed Canadian fans as “un-American” and said that they attended games to demonstrate their “affection for ale.” Prior to the ovation that greeted the 24-season veteran in Toronto, the slightly penitent Niekro said, “I’m looking forward to having a few ales with the fans after the game.”
The Jays acquired Niekro for a minorleague outfielder the day before Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Kevin Gross was ejected from a game and suspended for 10 days for having a piece of sandpaper glued to his glove. On Aug. 3, Niekro’s 42-year-old brother, Joe, who pitches for the Minnesota Twins, drew the same penalties for carrying an emery board and a piece of sandpaper with him on the mound. Knuckle-ball pitchers use emery boards to file their fingernails, with which they grip the ball. The sandpaper, Joe Niekro explained, helps keep the emery board dry. But both players were suspected of using their tools to scuff the ball, making its flight unpredictable.
Meanwhile, the commissioner’s office continued to check the composition of baseballs, which were flying out of stadiums at a record rate—and of bats, which were suspected of being filled with cork to assist the balls’ flights. At the current pace, batters would hit 4,572 home runs by the end of the season—599 more than the combined National and American Leagues’ record home-run years. But in his losing debut with the Blue Jays, at least, Niekro allowed just one.
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