Hall of Famer Phil Niekro, who died Saturday at 81, had brief stint with Jays in 1987

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With the Blue Jays immersed in a tight division race in 1987, Toronto catcher Ernie Whitt was pleased the club acquired veteran pitcher Phil Niekro for the stretch drive.

His one opportunity to catch the 48-year-old knuckleballer came on Aug. 29 that year against the Oakland Athletics at Exhibition Stadium.

"He'd had such a long career and you just knew he was going to be a Hall of Famer," Whitt said. "Just to have the opportunity to catch him, I was excited about it. I was thrilled."

Niekro's appearance didn't last long. He was shelled for five earned runs over two-thirds of an inning in what would be his third and final start as a Blue Jay.

Niekro, who died Saturday at age 81, decided he would retire that year. After being released by Toronto, he returned to the Atlanta Braves for one last appearance with his longtime team before calling it quits.

A five-time all-star, Niekro won 318 games over his 24-year career. The right-hander had three 20-win seasons with Atlanta and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997.

Niekro, a resident of Flowery Branch, Ga., died in his sleep after a long fight with cancer, the Braves said Sunday.

"It's sad. I was very fortunate that I was able to play with him for a little bit," Whitt said. "The way he carried himself as a professional, he joked around and had a good time.

"He was nice to have on our club for that short period of time."

Niekro, while pitching with the New York Yankees, enjoyed a special moment in Toronto less than two years before his brief stint with the Blue Jays. He earned his 300th career win on Oct. 6, 1985 at the Ex, capping the complete game by fanning Jeff Burroughs for the four-hit shutout.

The Blue Jays beat New York a day earlier to clinch the American League East division title. Niekro's appearance in the season finale would be his last as a Yankee.

He joined the Cleveland Indians in 1986 and was dealt to Toronto on Aug. 9, 1987 in exchange for Darryl Landrum and Don Gordon. The Blue Jays, Yankees and Detroit Tigers were battling for top spot in the East at the time.

"I think it (showed) the organization was going to try to do whatever they could for us to win the division," Whitt said in a phone interview with The Canadian Press.

"He fit right into the room," he added. "He was just like one of the guys."

Backup catcher Charlie Moore played in Niekro's Toronto debut, a 10-3 loss to the Chicago White Sox. Niekro took the defeat after giving up three earned runs over 5 2/3 innings.

He had a similar line in a 3-1 loss to the California Angels about a week later.

With Whitt moving behind the plate against Oakland, Niekro gave up four hits - including a three-run homer to Carney Lansford - before getting the early hook.

"I was disappointed that he didn't have his good stuff," Whitt said. "It was like, 'Did I do something wrong?' But when you're throwing basically knuckleballs, if it's dancing and it's working, then you're OK. But if it's not, it's pretty easy to centre up if it's not moving."

The Blue Jays would fade down the stretch. Toronto closed the season with seven losses and settled for a second-place finish behind the Tigers.

Niekro would grip the ball with his fingernails on the seams and release the knuckler with almost no spin. Batters could be flummoxed as the ball dipped, dived or floated its way to the plate.

"When you're catching it, you're not really catching it. You're just snagging it," Whitt said. "You're waiting until the last minute and just trying to react to it."

Whitt said Niekro's knuckler would hover between 60 and 75 m.p.h.

"It can make you look very foolish at the plate," he said. "It's no fun to hit and it's no fun to catch."

Whitt recalled that Niekro had a real presence in the locker-room thanks to his vast experience and personality. Old-school all the way, Niekro quickly meshed with his teammates.

"He'd just walk around with a cigarette in his mouth, just nonchalant," Whitt said.

After a game, the knuckleballer would still be sporting his cap while sitting in the hot tub, Whitt recalled, adding Niekro always enjoyed sitting down to talk baseball over a smoke and a cold beer.

"Those days are gone now," Whitt said with a chuckle. "At the end of the game, everyone is out there, out of the ballpark and definitely not drinking beer."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 28, 2020.

With files from The Associated Press. Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.

Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press