Fathers take children to see Phil Niekro pitch for the first time, and the kids say: “Hey, he’s even older than you.” Women see him pitch for the first time, and they say: “Hey, even I could hit that.” Phil Niekro is 46 years old, and his knuckleball has three speeds: Slow, slower and suspended animation.
But he is still in there pitching.
He did not win his 300th game Friday night, despite going the distance against the division-leading Toronto Blue Jays. As Niekro said afterward, though, “I don’t think I’m through pitching. If I don’t get it this year, I’ve got 35 starts next year. I should win one in there somewhere.”
It quickly became apparent Friday night that Niekro was sorrier for others than he was for himself. Since he and the New York Yankees lost, 3-2, the Blue Jays pulled 2 1/2 games ahead of them in the American League East. “If I’d won,” Niekro said, “we’d come to the ballpark tomorrow with a chance to move into first place.”
He also felt sorry for the friends and neighbors who formed part of the Yankee Stadium crowd of 53,303. “People spent a lot of money on airplane tickets,” he said, “and I was hoping they wouldn’t get cheated.”
Had he won, Niekro would have become only the 18th pitcher to win 300 games. He has done it with the strange pitch his father taught him, and that was on his mind Friday, in more ways than one.
For one thing, Phil Sr. had to stay home in Lansing, Ohio, instead of coming to the game, because he was in poor health. Niekro doesn’t know if his dad will be able to see his next bid for No. 300, which probably will come Wednesday in Detroit.
For another thing, there is the fate of the knuckleball itself to consider. Niekro said he is proud that no one else who ever threw the pitch has won so many games. “But when I’m done,” he said, “only my brother Joe and Charlie Hough will be throwing it. I haven’t heard of anybody throwing it in the minors.
“I don’t want to see the knuckleball die,” Niekro said. “It’s a unique pitch. If I have to open up a knuckleball school, I guess I will.”
If his father had not taught him the knuckler in sixth grade, “I’d be working in a coal mine back in Ohio, or in a steel mill.” Niekro understands that life. An amateur poet, he once wrote, “For This Is My Valley,” a poem about his roots. Part of it went: Along the river there’s smoke from the plant/That slowly creeps up the hills/It’s a sign of life of people at work/In those old but needed mills.
A $500 contract from one scout who believed in him enabled Niekro to find a different life. He got his first win in the majors in 1965, working five innings of shutout relief for Milwaukee against Pittsburgh while his catcher, Joe Torre, was getting four hits. Since then, he and brother Joe have combined for 501 wins; the only brothers with more are Gaylord and Jim Perry with 529.
When the Braves moved to Atlanta, “Knucksie” became a heroic figure, to the extent that a statue of him has been created and soon will be erected outside the park. Niekro himself may be returning to Atlanta, possibly as player-manager, now that he is in the last month of his contract with New York.
He still has work to do in this city, even though Dwight Gooden is two years older than his son . But Atlanta is calling him home. Niekro has said he intends to win his 300th “wearing a New York Yankees uniform with an Atlanta Braves jockstrap underneath.”
He pitched splendidly Friday, losing only because of shaky defense. Had left fielder Ken Griffey not allowed an Al Oliver line drive to get past him for a two-run triple, the Yankees possibly would have won, 2-1. Oliver, the Dodger castoff, knocked in all three Toronto runs. All three runs were unearned.
A man of special occasions, Niekro was born in 1939 on April Fools’ Day, got his 3,000th strikeout last summer on the Fourth of July and was trying to get his 300th victory on Friday the 13th. The crowd stood for him when he completed nine innings and wanted him to take a bow, but Niekro said: “I don’t believe in taking curtain calls when you’re behind.”
He would not have returned for a 10th inning. In the eighth, a cramp in his forearm numbed his index finger--something that has happened on other days as well--and by the ninth inning, Niekro barely had enough feeling left in it to throw the ball. He sat in the dugout wearing a heavy jacket with a wool mitten.
It might not be much longer before the statue of Phil Niekro can throw a ball better than he can. In the meantime, “If you’re going to take a bet on me winning my 300th,” he said modestly, “I’d still say the odds are in my favor.”