During the 1959 season 20 pitchers would appear in a McCook Braves uniform, although never more than 10 at any one time. Only one, Phil Niekro, a 20-year-old knuckleballer from Blaine, Ohio, would ever have a major-league career. In 1969 Niekro won 23 games for the Atlanta Braves and became the first knuckleball pitcher to win that many games in 55 years. He is still a starter on the Atlanta staff. In 1959, however, the Braves had given him $500 and sent him to McCook as the 10th pitcher on the staff. At first he appeared only in the final innings of hopelessly lost games. He was ineffective because he could not throw his knuckleball over the plate and preferred instead to use one of his other pitches, all of which were deficient. In fact, he seemed deficient. He was tall, blond and affected a deferential slouch. I dismissed him as a timid man. Years later I would realize that what I had mistaken for timidity was actually a simplicity of nature. Phil Niekro was the least complex man I had ever met. He devoted his life to the mastering of a pitch. He had been taught that pitch by his father when he was six years old and had still not mastered it when he reached McCook. It is a capricious pitch. It has no logic. Even its name is illogical, since knuckles have nothing to do with its performance. To throw one a pitcher digs the nails of his first two fingers into the seams of the baseball and then pushes the ball to the plate with the same motion he would use to close a door. Once released, the ball has no spin. It is caught immediately by invisible currents of air. (A spinning ball cuts through the currents and takes a direction of its own.) The vagaries of the currents may cause a knuckleball to rise or dip or flutter left and right, or maybe all of those things, or maybe just some of them, or maybe none at all. It may just float lazily plateward. Its flight pattern is as erratic as a hummingbird's. A pitcher has no control over the pitch. He imposes nothing on the ball, simply surrenders to its will. To be successful a knuckleball pitcher must recognize this fact and then decide that his destiny lies only with the pitch and that he will throw it constantly no matter where it leads him. It was in McCook that Phil Niekro first surrendered his will to the whims of his knuckleball and, thereafter, his success began. It is a surrender a more complex man could never make, but one that eventually brought Phil Niekro a success none of his teammates at McCook ever approached.
I stayed to myself at first. I lived in a room at the Keystone Hotel. In the afternoons I walked to the armory. I dressed with my teammates and then sat in the backseat of one of their cars for the short ride to Cibola. I stared out the window and said nothing. Until I pitched my first game (and awed my teammates with my talent) I would not feel a part of the team. After the games I returned to town and sat on the bench in front of the Keystone until midnight. I was fascinated by the cars "dragging Main." It was a ritual I'd never seen back home in Fairfield, Conn. and which, I learned, was indigenous to small isolated towns like McCook. The cars were mostly older rectangular Chevy Nomads and boxy Ford coupes and, occasionally, a low-slung and ponderous black Mercury with a narrow windshield and humped back that crawled up Main Street looking as sinister as an alligator. The teen-agers beeped their horns and gunned their motors and, hanging halfway out of the windows, shouted to passing cars filled with their friends.
One night I was standing on the curb in front of the hotel when I saw Ron Hunt, then an 18-year-old third baseman, now the second baseman of the Montreal Expos, walking up the hill toward me. As he approached, a car filled with girls drove by. I waved. They waved back and the car continued down the hill. Hunt noticed my gesture and came over to talk. He was shy and earnest with a very short crew cut that made his large ears look even larger. He was the first of my teammates with whom I'd had a conversation. We talked about our hometowns and our ambitions and hinted at the size of our bonuses. He seemed reticent to reveal the amount of his but eager to discover mine. I told him offhandedly it was a lot more than $20,000 (actually it was $45,000). "Gosh!" he said.
When Ron Hunt asked me to be his roommate that night, I gladly accepted. I moved in the following morning. We lived in a gray house a few blocks north of the hotel. It was owned by a tiny stooped lady with steel-gray hair. Ron introduced her as "Mom," which momentarily confused me. Then I realized she was not actually his mother. She charged us $8 a week to sleep in a single room with two cots and one bureau. For another dollar she would serve us breakfast and allow us to watch television with her at night. I declined the latter offer but Ron didn't, although I'm sure she never got around to charging him that extra dollar. When I woke each morning I would hear them in the kitchen. "Have another piece of toast, son," she would say. He would laugh and tell her she treated him better than his own mother did. I always waited until she left the kitchen before slipping out the door and walking downtown to eat my breakfast. After the games at night I continued to spend my time in front of the Keystone Hotel. I would stay there until I knew both Ron and Mom had finished watching television and gone to bed.
I envied the intimacy they shared. I was alone and would have been pleased to find in McCook some familial warmth. But I could never call her Mom. It embarrassed me. Their intimacy seemed too easily acquired, like a new glove broken in by someone else. No matter how comfortably it fit the contours of your hand it would never feel quite right. It was someone else's glove. The oils that had softened and molded it had come from someone else's palm. Its comfort, then, was unearned. The ability to deal intimately with strangers was something I did not have nor think worth acquiring. I chose distance instead. I never spoke more than a few perfunctory words to Mom as I entered or left her house. She told Ron I was aloof, unfriendly. I do not remember what she was, other than an old woman in whose house I once slept for $8 a week.
Ten days after I arrived in McCook Bill Steinecke told me I would pitch the second game of a night doubleheader against the Holdrege White Sox in Holdrege. The first game went 15 innings. In the 11th inning Steinecke told me that if the game did not end soon there would be no second game. A town ordinance prohibited any game from starting after 11:50 p.m., and it was already 10:30. "You'll get your start some other day," he said. In the 12th inning the White Sox got a runner on third and I prayed they would score him. They didn't. In the following half-inning I prayed that the Braves would score a run, but they didn't. My allegiance skipped back and forth between the teams until finally the Braves won in the 15th. It was 11:30 p.m. "We'll start as soon as you're warmed up," Steinecke said. My warmup catcher was Elrod Hendricks, who had caught all 15 innings of the first game and would sit out the second. He had just unbuckled his shin guards and sat back in the dugout when I told him I had to warm up.
"Oh, mon! Got plenty time," he said in the calypso lilt of his native Virgin Islands.
"I gotta start now," I said, and walked down to the bullpen. He followed, shaking his head. He was very black, and in the dimly lighted bullpen I could barely make out his face. I began to throw hard almost from the first pitch. He was standing and catching the ball with a carefree snap of his glove. Before he returned each pitch he spoke to the fans standing alongside the fence. I could see his white teeth as he smiled. "Hurry up," I shouted, but he seemed not to hear me. He lobbed the ball back in a lazy arc. He was still standing a few minutes later when I began to throw full speed. I motioned for him to get down in a crouch and give me a target. He did, slowly, as if with great pain, and I heard the fans laughing. I fired the next pitch over his head. He made a halfhearted swipe at it with his glove. The ball rolled to the dugout.
"You coulda had that!" I kicked the dirt in front of me. "Jeez, hurry up!"
I saw his teeth again. "You don" like it, mon, get 'nother catcher."