Niekro is not now and, in all likelihood, never will be a pitcher. He is a third baseman, perhaps the nation's best, despite playing for a Division II school in front of crowds that rarely exceed a few hundred. Through Sunday he was batting .365, with three home runs (Henley Field, the team's home park, has the improbable dimensions of 340 feet down the leftfield line, 420 to straightaway center and 330 down the rightfield line, hardly a slugger's dream), 40 RBIs and only seven strikeouts in 41 games for the 32-10 Moccasins, who are ranked seventh in Division II.
Back at George Jenkins High in Lakeland, Fla., Niekro pitched, but only during his freshman and sophomore seasons. He threw a Grade-A knuckleball ("I used it almost all the time," he says), a mid-80s fastball and a so-so changeup. "Around Lance's junior year we decided he'd be better off concentrating on being a full-time position guy," says Joe Niekro, who won 221 games (including 20 twice) over 22 seasons with seven major league teams. "He throws a really nice knuckler, but Lance is a hitter. It comes very naturally to him."
The sky is an orange-blue at Henley Field about 45 minutes before a game last month against Army. Joe Niekro, wearing the white-with-red-pinstripes uniform of the Moccasins, paces back and forth—watching Lance take BP, going over to talk to Anderson, then returning to BP. He is in his first year as the team's pitching and first base coach, a gig that shouldn't last too long, assuming Lance, as expected, is an early selection in the June amateur draft. When Lance leaves Florida Southern, Joe will probably go too.
The father and son are an interesting combo. Joe and Nancy Niekro divorced 12 years ago, and while Lance lived with his mother, his Little League coach was usually his dad. The two ballplayers have fished and golfed together for years. They call each other best friends. There is no yelling, no voice-raising, no "Aw, Pops!" When Lance was eight, he and Joe began taking daily BP. "I'd throw him a hundred balls every day," says Joe. "He couldn't get enough."
This was around the time that Joe was finishing his career, with the Minnesota Twins, winning a World Series title in 1987. Lance doesn't remember much of his father's prime 11 years (1975-85) with the Houston Astros, but he giddily speaks of wrestling in the Twins' clubhouse with Kirby Puckett, working as a part-time bat-boy, sprinting onto the Metrodome turf after the final out of the Series, having the champagne rubbed through his hair.
"You're a little kid, so you don't know how to appreciate things," says Lance, "but I look back, and how could I have had a better childhood? I was pals with Kirby Puckett!"
Perhaps that Series would've been Lance's defining moment, had the weird gods of baseball not messed with his life. He starred at George Jenkins High, batting .544 with 10 home runs and 43 RBIs as a senior in 1997, but the major colleges ignored him. Word had gotten out that he was going pro no matter what, but when the Philadelphia Phillies selected him in the 13th round, he was under-whelmed by the team's offer, and suddenly he longed for Florida State or Miami to wave some scholarship dough his way. "Nobody offered," Niekro says. "I would've loved to play for Florida State."
He decided to ditch the Phillies anyway and, rather than walk on at a Division I power, enrolled in Florida Community College in Jacksonville, where he spent three of the most insignificant weeks of his life. "I got there, and I knew it was wrong," he says. "Nothing specific—just not for me."
The idea, at least at the time, had been to play one year of juco ball and then re-enter the draft. Instead, Niekro reversed himself again and looked toward Florida Southern. "On a Friday night I got a call from Lance's mom saying he was dropping out of school," recalls Anderson. "Two days later I come home, and there's a message on my machine saying Lance has enrolled, and he'll be in class on Monday. I'd known about Lance Niekro since he was six. I just never thought I'd get him."