Thirty Years Ago Today: Joe Niekro Gets Ejected for Cheating and Scuffing the Ball
It's not the kind of anniversary that MLB is going to celebrate, but it's funny nonetheless. On this day 30 years ago, Twins pitcher Joe Niekro got tossed from a game against the Angels after he was discovered scuffing the ball with an emery board and sandpaper in his pockets—and after a decidedly lame attempt to get rid of them without anyone noticing.
The trouble all starts with a simple called strike from Niekro to Angels designated hitter Brian Downing, when home plate umpire Tim Tschida realizes something's fishy with the ball. Niekro's reaction pretty much gives the game away, but he tries to stall and obfuscate even as umpires converge on him and ask him to empty his pockets. He does—and in the process, tries to fling away the emery board (about 1:03 into the video), which the umps quickly notice. Just like that, Niekro gets tossed, though it should have been as much for his bad sleight of hand as for his attempts to get away with scuffing the ball.
After the game, Niekro tried to argue that the board and sandpaper were actually to keep his nails nice and trim.
"I'll be honest with you, I always carry two things out there with me," Niekro said. "An emery board and a small piece of sandpaper. I've done that ever since I started throwing the knuckleball.
"Being a knuckleball pitcher, I sometimes have to file my nails between innings. So I carry an emery board with me to the mound."
And the sandpaper?
"Sometimes I sweat a lot and the emery board gets wet," Niekro said. "I use the other as a (backup)."
That excuse didn't hold for Angels manager Gene Mauch, however. "Those balls weren't roughed up," he said. "Those balls were borderline mutilated." Mauch then went on to throw some serious shade at Niekro: "Nobody ever suspected Joe Niekro (of scuffing the ball)," he said. "Everybody always knew it."
Niekro was given a 10-game suspension for cheating, though the 43-year-old righty wouldn't be around that much longer anyway: He retired after just 11 2/3 innings pitched in the 1988 season, bringing an end to a 22-year career. At least he gave us the gift of this bizarre ejection and sad attempt to hide it before he left.