The two things about Phil Niekro that I remember most — and the lessons attached,
When I consider Phil Niekro, two things come to thoughts. I don’t consider his knuckleball. I don’t consider his 318 wins. I don’t consider his Corridor of Fame plaque.
No, when I consider Phil Niekro, who died Saturday at age 81, I consider how he pitched efficiently after he’d been labeled a has-been by his personal staff, and how, after it grew to become clear a number of years later that he was not a significant league-quality pitcher, he returned to that staff for one final sport as a result of he couldn’t deliver himself to retire in some other uniform.
Attached to these reminiscences are three fairly good life lessons: 1) You do not have to imagine what folks say about you; 2) It is good to show the critics flawed; and 3) Do not cease till you have reached your objective.
About that first reminiscence: After the 1983 season, which was Niekro’s twentieth in the majors, the Braves thought he was completed and advised him he ought to retire. He didn’t need to retire, however the Braves launched him anyway. He was 44 years previous, positively previous by main league requirements, however not essentially previous by knuckleball requirements. He felt he may nonetheless deliver it at the main league degree, so he signed as a free agent with the Yankees. Over the subsequent two seasons, all he did was win 32 video games, make the All-Star staff, and win his three hundredth profession sport. A lot for being washed up.
MORE: The inside story of how Phil Niekro returned to the Braves for one final sport
The truth is, throughout his 1984 season — his first away from the Braves — Niekro led the Yankees in wins (16), innings pitched (215.2), ERA (3.09), ERA+ (123) and strikeouts (136), whereas his 4.6 WAR was second solely to Don Mattingly. Had Niekro remained with the Braves in 1984, and had he pitched to the degree he achieved in New York, he would’ve been the staff’s greatest pitcher.
“I suppose perhaps in the again of my head I’m considering, ‘What are the Braves considering now? What are they considering now?” Niekro advised me in 2017. “Did they make a mistake or did they not?”
Maybe the Braves provided a clue into their reformed Niekro ideas once they held Phil Niekro Night time on a Yankees off day in 1984. They showered him with items, together with an authentic track, and retired his No. 35.
Nonetheless, whereas Niekro was by no means bitter, that divorce from the Braves a yr earlier had stung him. Baseball is a enterprise, and Niekro understood that. His launch got here as a result of the Braves’ entrance workplace noticed him as a stumbling block for the youth motion it deliberate to embrace in the coming years — a youth motion that, fact be advised, failed miserably after Niekro’s departure, as the Braves launched into a collection of embarrassingly unhealthy shedding seasons. In the meantime, Niekro’s thoughts was by no means removed from Atlanta.
“I was nonetheless considering about the Atlanta Braves virtually day-after-day I was in New York these two years,” he advised me.
Which brings me to the second reminiscence: After Niekro‘s years with the Yankees, he had a stint in Cleveland and then a really brief stint with the Blue Jays in 1987, when it grew to become clear that he, certainly, was not a serviceable main league pitcher. The Braves, in the meantime, had been barely a serviceable main league staff in 1987. In order the season drew to a detailed, and after Niekro was launched by the Blue Jays late in late August, the Braves and Niekro noticed a chance for each events to get correct closure after their breakup 4 years earlier. So Niekro signed a one-day contract for $1 to make one remaining look in a Braves uniform.
Sept. 27, 1987, was a homecoming. Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium, hardly ever filled with followers in these days, was lots crowded that Sunday afternoon as 1000’s got here to bid Knucksie a correct farewell. As Niekro pitched to the Giants in these early innings, he escaped a couple of jams and it was like he had by no means left. However, as a result of Father Time stays undefeated, the Giants ultimately acquired to the 48-year-old Niekro in the fourth inning. He exited to a standing ovation and a video montage on the scoreboard. He took a no-decision as the Braves misplaced 15-6.
The end result did not matter. Niekro had gotten what he needed: to stroll off the mound for the remaining time sporting a Braves uniform — as a result of Phil Niekro liked the Braves.
That love lasted properly after his enjoying days, as Niekro remained one in all the best ambassadors the Braves ever had.
I met Niekro in individual simply as soon as, however I interviewed him a number of instances on the telephone. Every time he was accessible, form, open and humorous. That is how I’ll remember him on a private degree. However in the case of his profession, I’ll all the time consider these two foremost reminiscences — and the lessons they communicate.