Monday, July 18, 2005
Page 2 interview: Phil Niekro
By Jeff Merron Page 2
A lot of folks are talking about Phil Niekro these days. His nephew, Lance (Joe's son), a first baseman for the Giants, is a legit contender for rookie of the year. With Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Jamie Moyer and David Wells pitching successfully into their 40s, Niekro's record of 121 wins after turning 40 is getting fresh ink. And the Hall of Fame knuckleball pitcher is on a mission to increase awareness of deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a condition that afflicted his father, who died in 1988.
Page 2's Jeff Merron recently caught up with Niekro in Durham, N.C., where the Hall of Famer was promoting DVT awareness (for more information, visit www.DVT.net).
JM: When did you learn about the knuckleball?
Niekro won 318 games and reached 20 wins three times with the Braves.
PN: My dad played for a coal-mining team in eastern Ohio; he was a very good pitcher. If he hadn't hurt his arm he probably would have got a shot somewhere. He hurt his arm one spring, didn't warm up good enough, couldn't throw a fastball anymore. Another coal miner taught him how to throw the knuckleball.
He threw it to me one day. I asked him what it was, [and] he showed me how to hold it. Didn't know what it was, didn't know anything about it except that I liked it.
I remember going to see my dad pitch against other coal-mining teams, and he was successful with the knuckleball. I saw how bad guys would look like swinging, and how guys talked about how he could throw every day and didn't hurt his arm. That's how I grew up learning. I never knew how to throw a fastball, never learned how to throw a curveball, a slider, split-finger, whatever they're throwing nowadays. I was a one-pitch pitcher.
I could get out guys in my hometown [Lansing, Ohio]. I went to a tryout camp -- a scout [for the Milwaukee Braves] saw [my knuckleball] and signed me for a $500 bonus.
I think me and Hoyt Wilhelm basically started when we were kids and threw it in high school. Most of the other knuckleballers picked it up later.
JM: When we were chatting earlier you mentioned "the fraternity of knuckleballers." Why isn't it bigger?PN: There's nobody around who can teach how to throw a knuckleball. Everybody's shying away from it. In my case, my first organized game was in high school, and I was a knuckleball pitcher by then.
But there was no place we could go to get any help. I'd have to go to my brother or to Hoyt Wilhelm or Charlie Hough, [Tom] Candiotti or [Wilbur] Wood. Whenever we got together, we'd sit around and talk about knuckleballs, look at the film of our last game and see if we could figure out what our mistakes were.
We're our own teachers. There's very few pitching coaches that I worked with that actually came out on the mound and told me what I was doing wrong with the knuckleball. Because they just didn't know. So I had to figure it out. I was on my own.
JM: But you did work with Tim Wakefield, right?PN: He pitched very well against the Braves in the playoffs [when he was with the Pirates]. And then all of a sudden they released him. In '94, Sammy Ellis, the pitching coach for the Boston Red Sox, came up to [me and Joe in spring training] and said he had a chance to get Wakefield. And Joe and I said, "Go get him, right now."
I told the Red Sox at the time that he was probably the only guy on their ballclub (and still is) and probably the only pitcher in baseball that will willingly start for you, be a long man for you, middle man for you, setup for you and be your stopper. He's done all that.
After pitching 24 seasons in the big leagues, Niekro finally made the Hall in 1997.
And they signed him. I worked with him a lot in spring training along with Joe, and then the Red Sox hired me for a couple years after that as a consultant to come to spring training, work with Tim. Maybe somewhere along the line I helped him, got him into the groove, but he's on his own now, and he's very productive.
JM: What's the fastest pitch you ever threw?PN: With the wind behind me in Chicago, I may have hit 84, 85, 86. But I knew I couldn't throw hard, so I never worked on trying to throw the ball any harder. I didn't even think about throwing hard.
JM: You could really fool some people -- Floyd Robinson, for example.PN: I threw him two knuckleballs the first time I faced him. He took both of them, and I guess he thought he at least better get one swing in. And I started the other one a bit more in the middle of the plate. I think he thought it was going to be a strike and he started to swing and the ball actually went behind him, and he swung. And if he would have hit it he would have hit a line drive into the press box behind home plate. All I saw was the back of his number and he was facing the fans behind the plate.
JM: What was it like, back in 1977, when you had Ted Turner as a manager for one game?PN: I think we lost 16 or 17 games in a row and we were in Pittsburgh. He asked Dave Bristol, our manager, to take a little leave of absence. I was pitching that day. I just got through hitting in the batting cage before the game. I got behind the batting cage, waiting for my next turn, and Ted came out of the dugout in a uniform. First time he's ever had one on. Walked up behind the batting cage, said something, and I said, "Where you got me hitting tonight, Ted?" And he said, "Hell, I don't care, where do you want to hit? You want to hit third, you want to lead off?" I think he probably meant it, too. [Laughs] And I said, "No, I think you better keep me in that ninth spot."
He just had to come down to the dugout and see why we weren't winning . [He was] probably the best owner I ever played for. Didn't know a lot about the game. But he's been a winner all his life. He didn't like to lose. He really, really, really tried hard. I'm just sorry that while he was there we didn't do a better job for him.
JM: How did it come about that you filled in for Pascual Perez when he got lost on the way to his own ballpark in 1982?PN: Pascual had just come to Atlanta. He couldn't speak English real well, and I don't know where he was staying at, but I was supposed to pitch the next day. I was in the shower room, it was 20 minutes before the game, and the manager comes in and says, "Pascual's not here, can you pitch tonight?" And I said, "Yeah, oh yeah. I don't know unless I go out there and try." And I said, "Where's Pascual?' And he said, "I don't know. We haven't heard from him."
And then it came out that he got lost on 285 and kept circling the city of Atlanta for I don't know how long. More people probably remember him for that than for anything. He was a good little pitcher, he really was.
JM: Another oddity was your brother, Joe, hitting his only career home run off you, back in 1976.PN: It was the only hit he got off of me in the big leagues. You know, if he was going to hit one home run in the big leagues, it was just as good that he hit it off me.
It was a close game [in Atlanta]. I threw him a knuckleball, he didn't swing. I hollered at him, "You can't hit it if you don't swing at it." I threw him another one, he took it. I hollered out, "You can't hit if you don't swing at it." The third one I threw was the best one, probably would have hit him on the left toe. Like a 9-iron, he hit it over the left-field fence for a home run. That beat me, I think 4-3 or 3-2.
We still razz each other a lot about that. I tell everyone I grooved it for him, make sure he got one home run in the big leagues, but I know I wanted to get him out. Joe was a good hitter. I threw a great pitch, and he hit maybe the best knuckleball I've ever thrown.
JM: What is it like to be alive and have a statue of yourself? [Outside Turner Field]PN: It's a place where pigeons can sit.
JM: Did you model for it?PN: No. They took it off of a picture. It was Ted Turner's idea. After I got released in Atlanta, I ran into him in the elevator one time and he says, "You know, Niekro, that's the biggest mistake I ever made in my life." It wasn't two or three months later in spring training, someone came up to me and said, "They want to put a statue of you up in front of Atlanta stadium." What are you going to say? You can't say no.
JM: You managed the women's baseball team, the Silver Bullets. What do you think the prospects are for women's baseball?PN: If we had kept our program going, I think we would have been very good. It took us four years to have a winning season. Four years of players who really loved the game, never had a problem with any of them. I was extremely proud to be a part of it. I wish they hadn't closed. There are some good athletes out there. If that program could have kept on going, there'd be a lady or two playing in the minor leagues right now, probably Triple-A.
JM: What was it like when you got into the Hall of Fame?PN: That was the icing. My mother sitting in the front row with my brother and my sister, my wife Nancy and my three boys, all my friends, the nephews and nieces. And the first thing that entered my mind when I get up there and they hand me that plaque is, "I just kind of wish my dad was here." Because he was the one responsible for getting me here, along with all my teammates -- but it was still my dad, he was the reason I got there.