Phil Niekro’s actions never give a hint of what is ahead. By his easy-going ways, he could be preparing to go fishing, go hunting or win his 300th major league game.
“If I ever ran like the other pitchers did, I’d fall down,” said Niekro, a 46-year-old knuckleball specialist for the New York Yankees who tries for victory No. 300 tonight against the Toronto Blue Jays.
“I guess I’ve been lucky because I let my body tell me what to do, not the clock,” he said. “When I’m hungry, I eat, regardless of what time it is. When I’m sleepy, I sleep, regardless of what time it is. Who’s to say you have to do everything on a time schedule?”
It’s an unorthodox lifestyle, but one that certainly has worked for Niekro, now 15-9, with victories in each of his last five starts.
In an era of fastballs and strikeouts, of Dwight Gooden and other young arms performing amazing feats on the mound, Niekro is a throwback.
His fastball would not make many high school batters blink. His curve is OK, as is his slider. But it’s another pitch that has kept him around -- and successful -- for so long.
It is the knuckleball, that bain of batters and catchers alike. Niekro throws his from a motion that never seems quite complete, his follow-through sometimes winding up with his right hand at his knees and other times with it about belk high.
The pitch dips and darts, slides in an out, and -- as often as not -- leaves the batter helpless. It can backfire, too, and that is why Niekro’s ledger lists a National League-leading winning percentage of .810 with Atlanta in 1982 as well as a tie for the major league records for wild pitches in an inning (4) and a game (6), both set with the Braves on Aug. 4, 1979.
Philip Henry Niekro was born on April Fool’s Day 1939, in Blaine, Ohio. He and his younger brother, Joe, were star athletes at Bridgeport, Ohio, High School, where Phil played on the basketball team with John Havlicek.
After seven years of mostly minor-league service, Niekro hit the majors for good with Atlanta in 1967. He won 23 games in 1969, 20 in ’74 and 21 in ’79. He threw a no-hitter for the Braves against San Diego in 1973 and was named to the All-Star pitching staff four times.
But when his contract expired at the end of the 1983 season, Braves owner Ted Turner decided Niekro was too old and let him go. The Yankees signed him as a free agent in January 1984, and Niekro responded with a 16-8 mark and a 3.09 earned-run average.
“I never doubted I had something left,” Niekro said. “If anything, I have been extremely happy that I was able to pitch as I have the past two years because a lot of people in this organization stuck their necks out for me.
“Who could blame people for saying the Yankees were crazy to take a chance on a 45-year-old pitcher who was released by another major league organization?”
Niekro could return to Atlanta before too long. Passed over as a candidate for the Braves’ managing job in 1977 and 1981, he reportedly is being considered again, if Turner decides not to bring interim manager Bobby Wine back next year.
While he waits, Niekro keeps winning -- and gradually making concessions to age.
His 298th victory, against the Seattle Mariners on Sept. 3, was an eight-inning stint that took a lot out of him. He wondered up until game time if he would be able to make his next scheduled start, last Sunday against Oakland.
He made it, going six innings for a 9-6 victory, No. 299 for his career.
“I had no fastball, no slider, no screwball, and none of what I would call my velocity,” he said. “I got by on a little mental toughness.”
If Niekro wins Friday night, he would be the 18th pitcher in major league history to win 300 games and the second to record No. 300 at Yankee Stadium this season. Tom Seaver of the Chicago White Sox reached the milestone with a victory over the Yankees on Aug. 4.