Outside Looking In
When I was a columnist and sports editor at a daily paper for many years, one of the perks was being able to attend professional sporting events and meeting players before and after games in the locker room and on the field.
I had the opportunity to meet many players, some polite and willing to talk, and some who wouldn't give you the time of day. The majority, unfortunately, were in the latter category.
Reggie Jackson was the least favorite professional athlete that I ever met. He was aloof, smarted reporters off, and would not sign autographs for kids at a time when most players did.
Guys like Kent Hrbek and Gary Gaetti of the Twins were among the most cordial and would always joke around with reporters.
But none of the professional athletes I came in contact treated me better than Phil Niekro, a Hall of Fame knuckleball pitcher who played for the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves, New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians.
The first time I met Niekro was when the Indians came to the then-Metrodome for a game in 1986. As I came down the steps to enter the field during the team's batting practice prior to the game, Niekro stopped and said "hello" and asked my name and what paper I worked for.
"You're from the enemy camp, huh?" he said jokingly.
When I told him I was a Los Angeles Dodgers fan, he slapped me on the back and said "That's even worse" as he pitched for many against the Dodgers while a member of the Braves.
Niekro, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1997, did this past Saturday at age 81 after a lengthy battle with cancer. He joins Lou Brock, Whitey Ford, Bob Gibson, Al Kaline, Joe Morgan and Tom Seaver as Hall of Famers who passed away in 2020. That is the most Hall of Famer to pass away in a calendar year.
Niekro was 48 years old when he last pitched for the Indians.
Before that game against the Twins, one young teammate joked to Niekro in the clubhouse: "Isn't it hard to pitch with one foot in the grave?" Everyone inside the clubhouse laughed out loud, including Niekro himself.
I interviewed Niekro in the clubhouse shortly after that outburst for a story I was working on.
"I over 20 years older than almost every pitcher on the team," he said. "They ask me where I park my walker when I'm pitching. "After the game they will ask me if I want to go out with them for a bottle of Geritol. Things like that."
Niekro was usually very modest when talking about his accomplishment, but one thing he was most proud of had to do with his age.
"Only five American League pitchers won more games the last two years than I have," he said, referring to the back-to-back 16-win seasons he had with the Yankees in 1984 and 1985 before being released and signed with the Indians.
After his release from the Yankees, Niekro was on the mound pitching against them the following year. His mound opponent was Bob Tewksbury, the man who replaced Niekro.
"Some reporter had to point out that (Tewksbury) was only two years old when I broke into the majors," Niekro told me, laughing.
The Indians won the game 6-4, securing Niekro's 301st career win. Niekro pitched seven shutout innings, allowing only three hits, before the Indians' bullpen was touched for four runs.
He won 18 games in two seasons with the Indians and finished up pitching for the Toronto Blue Jays for three games and one final start with the Atlanta Braves in 1987.
Nieko won 318 games and struck out 3,342 batters in his 24-year career with a pitch that could barely break glass. He recorded 121 of those win after he turned 40 years old and pitched until he was 48 years old.
"Trying to hit Phil Niekro is like trying to eat Jell-O with chopsticks," former Yankees outfielder Bobby Murcer once said.
Despite all his success, he joked around with reporters and players from the other team instead of acting like a prima donna as many star athletes do today.
I asked Phil to show me where he gripped the knuckleball on the baseball, figuring I could use that as my changeup when pitching town team baseball in New London. I tried for years to throw the pitch that way, but could never get it to "dance" enough to use it in a game.
His brother, the late Joe Niekro, also a knuckleball pitcher, once pitched for the Minnesota Twins. The Niekro brothers combined for 539 wins in the majors, the most of any brother combination in Major League Baseball history.
Rest in peace, Knucksie. You were truly one of the good guys.