Undaunted by Skeptics, Graybeard Phil Niekro Knuckles Toward a New Season and Social Security
The Yankees' decision devastated Niekro, who won 16 games for them last year and who had promised over the winter that he would play for whatever salary they offered him. More than anything, Niekro wanted to finish his 23-year major league career in New York, where he would be playing with his brother, Joe, 41. The three weeks Phil and Joe pitched together last season were the happiest of Phil's career. Not even the off-and-on sniping between the players and the Yankees' heavy-handed owner, George Steinbrenner, could spoil it.
"When I went to the Yankees in '84, I'd heard all about the turmoil and stuff," says Niekro. "I told them, 'Just give me a locker in the back with a door so I can close out all that crap.' But it wasn't that bad. And the guys were great. I just didn't like seeing what the front office did to the players." Then the Yankees did it to Niekro. "I still don't believe it," he says. "I wore that uniform with pride. And I wanted so bad to pitch with Joe I told them, 'Just give me a blank contract, and I'll sign it. Fill in any figure you want.' I figured I'd get about $600,000, which is what I got last year. But when I got the contract this winter, it was for $250,000. My agent was furious. He told me to take them to arbitration. I said, 'No, I gave my word.' It bothered me, though, that the contract wasn't guaranteed. I had to make the club again. All my career, it seems, I've had to prove myself. People have been telling me things I can't do, and it gets me mad. Now they're telling me my body's too old. Shit, I seen guys with Adonis bodies who are on the disabled list every year. I been on once, when I was hit by a line drive in 1982.
"When I told Joe I had signed, he signed a three-year contract just so we could pitch together. Then, after my last start in spring training, they called me into the office and, you know, stumbled around. I said, 'What do you guys really want to do?' They said, 'Release you.' I said, 'Let's do it then.' I knew I could get a job someplace else. I don't embarrass nobody when I take the mound."
Niekro is used to overcoming such humiliations. His career has been a road map of them, from the time he was a 19-year-old prospect out of Lansing, Ohio. A Milwaukee Braves' scout offered him a $500 bonus and $275 a month in salary, then sent him to the minors. At McCook, Nebr., Phil was the tenth pitcher on a 10-man staff of strong-armed young men who'd been paid thousands to sign. They drove new Corvettes to the park while Phil walked, but none of them ever made the big leagues. The Braves pampered those rich young pitchers because of the money they had tied up in them, and they slighted Phil because even then his promise rested solely on a trick pitch that few people in baseball could understand or control. Phil was a knuckleballer, throwing a peculiar off-speed pitch that his father had taught him and that ordinary pitchers threw only for fun on the sidelines.
Phil spent the next six years moving up and down the Braves' minor league ladder. When the parent team finally called him up to Milwaukee in 1965 to play his first full major league season, he posted a sparkling 2.88 earned run average in 41 games as a relief pitcher. But he was returned to the minors during the following season because the Braves had no one who could catch what he threw. "When they sent me down, I cried," says Niekro. "They were telling me my pitch was too good. I cursed the damn pitch that was so much in control of my life."
The knuckleball is a curious and irrational pitch, one that is delivered by digging the first two fingernails into the ball's seams and then pushing it toward the plate with a motion akin to closing a door. Because the pitch puts so little strain on a pitcher's arm, and requires so little leg thrust, knuckleballers can have much longer careers than conventional pitchers. Once a knuckleball is released it has a will of its own. It does not spin, and so becomes a plaything of the tiniest wind currents, darting hither and yon like a frantic moth in a narrow hallway. "Two professors from some Ivy college came to study me," Phil says. "They did all kinds of tests on the pitch and wrote a book about air density, wind velocity, gravitational pull, axis spin, everything. I read the book three times and didn't learn nothing. A knuckleball is still its own boss."
It takes a certain temperament for a man to entrust his fate to such a pitch, and Niekro has it. He seems pale and almost timid until one discovers his fierce and controlled desire. He is persevering, stoical, fatalistic—a phlegmatic Pole who is a throwback to another generation. He speaks the language of his parents and spends his spare time on the road looking up places where he can dance the polka, work up a good sweat and drink a few shots and beers with his ethnic compatriots. "I find a Polish club wherever I can," he says. "Jimmy Sturr, the No. 1 polka band leader in the country, wrote a song for me, the Hey, Niekro! polka."
Phil Niekro has spent 27 years in baseball, and after the first six he stopped trying to impose his will on his pitch and let it take him wherever it wished. It bounced him back to the Braves in 1966, and he hasn't left the big leagues since. "Anybody can throw a knuckleball," he says, "but not many guys can be knuckleball pitchers. When Joe was making the transition from conventional pitcher to knuckle-ball pitcher in mid-career, I worked with him more on attitude than on throwing the pitch. I told him it's got to be the first pitch you throw in a game, the only pitch you turn to in a jam, and the last pitch you throw to finish a game. It's tough to do that, knowing that the batters know every time what's coming." In fact, knuckleball pitchers who throw too hard are courting disaster, since too much speed makes the pitch flatten out, just as it does if it isn't thrown hard enough. "It takes me all six weeks of spring training," says Phil, "just to find that perfect speed and rhythm for the pitch."
Phil won 268 games for the Braves over 18 years, including three 20-victory seasons. He built a nice life in the Atlanta suburbs for himself, his wife, Nancy, and his three sons, Philip, 18, John, 17, and Michael, 13. He took the boys fishing whenever he could, involved himself in a variety of charities, and was revered in Atlanta by fans and non-fans alike. There was talk that when he retired he would become the Braves manager. Team owner Ted Turner indicated he could have the job as soon as he retired, but Phil made the mistake of not retiring soon enough. In 1982 Joe Torre was hired to manage the Braves, and a year later Torre pressured Turner to let Niekro go. Rumor had it that Torre was uneasy with Niekro looming over his shoulder as a possible managerial replacement. Niekro was stunned. "It was the biggest humiliation of my career, before the Yankees," he says.
Now Niekro is with Cleveland, starting over again less than three years short of his 50th birthday. He arrived in Tucson, the Indians' spring training base, on a day the team was playing out of town. He went directly from the airport to the stadium, dressed in his new uniform, and walked out to an empty, sun-drenched field to throw to a 23-year-old minor league catcher named Steve Johnigan. Someone mentioned that Johnigan was young enough to be Phil's son. Phil smiled. Someone else said Johnigan was young enough to be Phil's grandson. "Don't start that shit now," Phil snapped. After Phil threw to him for a few minutes, Johnigan asked if he would sign a ball for him. "When my roommate and I heard Phil Niekro was coming here, we thought, 'Wouldn't it be something if we could catch him, just once?' " said the young receiver. Niekro blushed, as he usually does at this kind of talk.
The next morning in the Indians' clubhouse, Phil was introduced to his new teammates, all of whom, it seemed, were about a year old when Niekro first reached the big leagues. Shyly, he put his head down, and sat by his locker. He was scheduled to pitch that afternoon and he was nervous. "I don't want to embarrass the organization," he said. "They've been good to me. They never once mentioned my age. The Texas Rangers said they'd love to sign me if I was 20 years old again. Hell, anybody would have signed me if I was 20!"
When Phil began throwing on the warm-up mound alongside the left-field bleachers, people in the stands called his name. They were retirees in their 60s and 70s, yet they saw him as one of their own. Niekro pitched well against the Milwaukee Brewers. He threw mostly screwballs and sliders at first, giving up two runs in three innings. Then, with trepidation, he began to rely on his knuckleball, the pitch that stands between him and unwelcome retirement. Effortlessly the old man pitched three shutout innings. "How long can I go on?" he said later. "Who knows? I pitch because I can't find nothing else to do I love so much. I still love to look in the batter's eye. Besides, if someone's got to be the youngest, then someone's got to be the oldest too. And I'm it."