Patrick Reusse has been covering sports in the Twin Cities since 1968. He has been a Star Tribune sports columnist since 1988. His sportswriting credo is twofold: 1. God will provide an angle; 2. The smaller the ball, the better the writing.


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Joe Niekro, Cliff Johnson and 5 Ks in an inning

Posted by: Patrick Reusse Updated: August 7, 2013 - 12:58 AM

I'm hitting the sack for the night. I make the mistake of turning on ESPN and it's time for baseball highlights. One featured attraction is Boston's 15-10 victory over Houston.

I didn't know Boston had a knuckleball pitcher, but they do, a guy named Steve Wright. He's the starter, and he's tossing the knuckler, and catcher Ryan Lavarnway is having a horrible time. The first incident, the ball pops from his glove, but he thinks it's in the glove. When he realizes it's not, he finds the baseball and attacks it like he's killing a snake.

When the inning is over, Lavarnway has four passed balls, and there's a wild pitch that could have been ruled another passed ball. The Astros get one hit in the inning and score three runs. Wright is hooked and, no matter what Lavarnway says later, he's the happiest man on the planet.

What happened with Lavarnway and Wright wasn't the problem putting off my sleep. The problem was it got me thinking about a game in the new Louisiana Superdome, an exhibition game between the Twins and the Astros, and the Astros' Cliff Johnson getting so tired of missing Joe Niekro's knuckleballs that he eventually stopped chasing 'em as the Twins ran about the bases.

There were two choices: Stay awake trying to pinpoint vague details on that game, or get on the Internet and try to discover some actual details.

Baseball Reference is the greatest Website in the history of  Websites, but it can't help with exhibitions. And all the clippings from my days as a St. Paul baseball writer are still in the library "morgue'' of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, so I couldn't look up what I chose to write about that ballgame.

A couple of minutes of deep thought made me realize it had to have been before the start of the 1976 season. I knew this by connecting a couple of quotes I've never forgotten:

One came from Twins pitcher Bert Blyleven. I had flown to New Orleans with the team and was on the bus from the airport into the city. It was late at night. There's a rise as you make a curve in the highway and look toward the city. And the gigantic, gold roof on the Superdome looked pure white at night.

So, we all looked in silent awe for a minute, and then Blyleven blurted: "My God. It looks like Albury's fastball.''

Everyone laughed mightily, except lefty reliever Vic Albury, since fastballs that look huge aren't a good thing for a pitcher.

The other quote came from Gene Mauch, after being surrounded by the entire Calvin Griffith brain trust for a couple days and for large meals in New Orleans. As we were leaving the Superdome, Mauch said to a couple of reporters:

"I'm up to my [rear end] in baseball and expertise.''

If Blyleven and Mauch were both on the trip, it had to be 1976, since that was Gene's first year as manager, and Blyleven was traded in June of that season by the Twins.

So, I did a search for "Twins-Astros 1976 Louisiana Superdome,'' and found out quickly that the Twins and the Astros played the first-ever baseball game in the Superdome on April 6, 1976.

My recollection was the teams played two exhibitions there, so I couldn't be sure if April 6 was the game in which Niekro's knucklers kept darting past an increasinfly disinterested Cliff Johnson.

More Googling and there was the answer in a Wikipedia file devoted to strikeouts:

It read that while no pitcher had recorded more than four strikeouts in one inning of an official major league game, there were claims that Joe Niekro had done so in the first inning of an exhibition game in the Superdome on April 7, 1976.

And I was there, laughing my large rump off as Cliff Johnson finally said, "Ah, the heck with it,'' as Niekro gestured for him to pursue the last couple of passed balls.

More details were discovered:

Rod Carew led off the Twins' first with a double. Niekro faced five more Twins in the inning and struck out all of them. Two reached base as Johnson had passed balls on third strikes. Three more passed balls kept the Twins traveling ... one hit, five Ks and three runs in the inning for the Twins in what would become a 10-3 victory in the last exhibition of the spring.

I even ran across a quote from Cliff Johnson: "It was just a tough pitch to handle today. It was doing a little bit of everything. He was throwing it harder and the break was a bit different.''

Joe Niekro (he died in 2006) has a place in Twins' lore. It's not so much as a member of the World Series champions of 1987, but for being caught with the emery board by umpire Tim Tschida in the middle of that season.

Niekro was suspended for 10 games. He was invited to the David Letterman Show and came on the set with a carpenter's apron and a power sander.

Very funny. So was Blyleven's line about Albury's fastball and Mauch's about his experience with Calvin's contingent in New Orleans.

And now that I know the when and the what of Cliffy Johnson and the Niekro knucklers, I can hit the sack.

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