Thursday marks one of the goofiest anniversaries in Twins baseball: The 30-year anniversary of Joe Niekro's ejection from a Twins-Angels game after an emery board came out of his pocket while umpires were searching him for evidence that he was scuffing baseball.
Among baseball people, the knuckleball-throwing Niekro had long been suspected of such chicanery.
Or, as Angels manager Gene Mauch put it: "Those balls weren't roughed up. Those balls were borderline mutilated. Nobody ever suspected Joe Niekro (of scuffing up the ball). Everybody always knew it."
A St. Paul native, Tim Tschida, was the home plate umpire that night and led the investigation: "The balls were defaced and scuffed in the same spot by something that couldn't be done by hands," he told the Star Tribune's Dennis Brackin.
Niekro was suspended for 10 days, which wasn't that much of a loss for the Twins because he had a 4-9 record and 6.26 ERA in the 18 games he started for them after being picked up from the Yankees. (The 1987 Twins weren't exactly flush with pitching and cycled through a number of veterans during the course of the season. Sound familiar?)
For his part, Niekro, who was 42 years old at the time and died in 2006, did his best to make a case for himself. He told Brackin "I've been carrying (an emery board) for 15 years. Being a knuckleball pitcher, I sometimes file my nails between innings. And if I need to, I'll even do it between pitches, which is why I carry it with me."
Uh-huh. And the sandpaper that was submitted to the American League office, along with a half-dozen doctored baseballs?
"Sometimes I sweat a lot, and the emery board gets wet."
Here's what the scene looked like on the night it happened. Watch for the emery board near the 65-second mark:
For his trouble, and because he was away from the team on suspension, Niekro ended up on Late Night with David Letterman to replay the incident.
This was the first of two oddball August anniversaries for the 1987 Twins. We'll tell you about the other one next week.