When Richards came to the Braves he was annoyed to learn that the team was letting a knuckleballer languish in the minors, especially since the Braves could hardly be choosy about pitchers. Since the Braves came to Atlanta in 1966 they have had only one man win as many as 16 games—Pat Jarvis, a pitcher of true grit, tough luck and limited gifts who is currently maintaining an ERA of 5.01.
So far this year, Niekro has accounted for 16 of the Braves' 25 complete games. In his 21 starts he has only once failed to last to at least the seventh inning, and in four relief appearances he has picked up two wins and a save. He has compiled the team's only ERA below 3.00—2.40, sixth best in the league—and struck out 114 men while walking only 29. During the Braves' last road trip the whole pitching staff appeared to crumple except Niekro. He started every four days instead of every five—the Braves' usual rotation—and remained strong. In fact, he liked it better that way. "I think I could go with two days rest," he says. "I never feel particularly tired in the last innings. Never had a sore arm."
There are those who will tell you that he has never broken a sweat. Only once has he had to change into a dry uniform, and even in the most tense situations he never seems to be fazed. Indeed, he tends to appear almost lethargic. In high school he went to sleep standing up in the midst of football practice. "You have to give him the sign real quick," says Uecker, "or he'll go to sleep on the mound. In a plane he'll doze off before he can get his seat belt fastened. Somebody else has to do it for him."
Phil is not letting the world pass him by, however. With brother Joe and four others he has formed Niekro Enterprises, Inc. He has a share in a chain of Italian restaurants and has just opened The Knuckler, a bar in Atlanta, where, Uecker predicts, "You won't be able to grab a beer—it'll slide right by you." Phil is making about $35,000 with the Braves now and should command a great deal more next year. His wife Nancy presented him with their second son—John Joseph—last Saturday. Meanwhile, the fingers of Philip Bruce, 17 months, are gradually getting longer. He had better hope that Didier gets married pretty soon and has a quick-handed boy.