"The knuckleball is a great pitch," says Joe. "I don't care if you're 65, if you've got a good knuckler, you can still pitch in the major leagues because it's so tough to hit. I thought Phil got a raw deal in Atlanta, but that's past already. His pitching is doing all the talking that's necessary."
One measure of Phil Niekro's longevity is that he's now second on the list of games won after age 40 (78), tied with Cy Young and just 11 behind Jack Quinn, who pitched for nine major league teams during a 23-year career. Wilhelm pitched until he was almost 49, so it's possible that Niekro can reach 300 victories—he's 25 short. The only real worry relates to the fact that his reactions have slowed. Knuckleballs may go in soft, but they can come back hard.
Perhaps the Braves had come to expect too much of Niekro. Certainly he wasn't the type of pitcher favored by Gibson, who tends to like those who throw as hard as he did. But knuckleballers serve as a counterbalance to the other pitchers on a staff. And given the state of the Atlanta pitching rotation, one wonders why the Braves would discard him so precipitously.
Some people suggested that Torre saw Niekro as a threat to his own managerial status. After Dave Bristol was fired in 1977, a reporter asked Niekro who he thought would make a good manager, and Niekro said, "Me." He discussed the job with Turner again when Bobby Cox was canned after the '81 season. "When I was growing up, Lou Boudreau was the player-manager at Cleveland," says Niekro. "I felt I could do both." Which brings to mind the scenario of a manager pulling himself from a game.
But Torre wasn't that insecure. Closer to the point, he and Niekro did have differences over when to pull him. Says Torre, "Knucksie was the type of guy who never wanted to come out, and I think the media made more of it than it should have because in all the years when the team wasn't good, they just left him out there. I really think the media in Atlanta was motivated by their personal feeling for Phil, which I understand, but we never really had any problem."
About the decision to discard Niekro, Torre says, "When we had an organization meeting at the end of the year, everybody agreed that we didn't feel he could get his knuckleball over on a regular basis. To think the decision was made for any other reason is asinine. I'd rather be saddled with a wrong decision than keep a guy I like who can't help us. Plus, the fact is, I don't dislike Phil. I like and respect him."
Even so, the "retiring" of Niekro was badly handled. "There's something wrong with the game when they take all the feelings out of it," says Braves utility man Jerry Royster. "Getting rid of Phil was like the Red Sox trading Yaz."
He played on the Braves for nearly 20 years.
King George made the deal with Atlanta's Teddy Bear.
There is no doubt that the South has really lost.
Thank you, Atlanta, for sending him to us.
On a Wednesday night not long ago in Yankee Stadium, Niekro started against the Cleveland Indians and eventually won 11-4, giving up one earned run in seven innings. Nancy, who was visiting for the week, was in the stands behind home plate, sitting with Jimmy Sturr and his date.
"It's funny," said Nancy, "but I watched hundreds of players get traded and released by the Braves...get 'em Phil!...and I always felt badly. But I never had any real empathy for what they and their families went through...I don't like all the room behind home plate for wild pitches...Now I know how they felt, and I feel a little guilty for not having experienced it before...damn, well, at least the run is unearned...The toughest part was not knowing where, if anywhere, he was going to pitch. Actually, Phil talked about retiring even before the Braves told him to. When you're told to quit, though, it's a great incentive...I don't think their heads are in the game with that much of a lead."