Neither Nancy nor Phil holds any grudge at all against Niekro's former boss, and Turner has said, "I'm so happy for him, I could bust my buttons. He's one of my best friends. He'll be back here one of these days. I don't know in what capacity. Maybe fishing with me. I enjoyed fishing with him more than watching him play, because I could talk to him."
Says Niekro, "One of the reasons I loved being a Brave was that I enjoyed playing for Ted Turner. I even thought it was a good idea when he came down to manage that one game a few years ago—if you owned a business, wouldn't you want to go to the office to see why things are so screwed up? I know baseball is a business, and I could understand it if the club would've been strengthened with me out of the way.
"But I didn't agree with them. Nobody knows you any better than you know yourself, and I know I was one of the 10 best pitchers in the organization. Ted told me, 'Phil, I'll take you to spring training if you think you can win.' But I told Ted, 'You can't take my hand and say, give my friend here a chance.' You can imagine the bad vibes that would've caused. The people Ted hired made it clear they didn't want me."
But his leaving has become a blessing in disguise. Had Niekro retired with full honors, he might have faded away, beloved but sooner or later forgotten. Now he gets to be appreciated all over again, not just for his enduring talents as a pitcher, but also for his considerable qualities as a man.
Take, for example, the way he conducts himself after a game. In the Yankees' 11-4 win over the Indians, third baseman Toby Harrah looked awful afield and cost the Yankees and Niekro a couple of runs. So the first thing that Niekro mentioned in the postgame interview was how impressed he was that Harrah tried to go to rightfield in the first inning to move the runner up. In the dark and stormy Yankee clubhouse, Niekro's locker is bathed in a radiant shower of light.
Besides his work for spina bifida, Niekro has been involved in the Big Brothers program, the March of Dimes and the Empty Stocking Fund. Says Havlicek, "Growing up where we did, we both felt we had to help other people. We were blessed with people who helped us, so we're just returning the favor." Says Joe, "My brother isn't a good person. He's a great person. I know this sounds corny, but he and my father are my idols."
Niekro also writes an occasional poem, although he's very private about his work. Nancy's favorite is a narrative poem he did about growing up in the Ohio Valley.
Niekro isn't a New York kind of guy, and he's living in a suburban New Jersey hotel. He misses his home and his kids. Two of his boys, John, who's 14, and Michael, who's 11, are both experimenting with the knuckleball. Phillip, 16, may not throw it, but he does understand it. "He's quite a mathematician, really into his books," says his father. "And that's fine with me."
Thanks to Sturr, Niekro has a counterpart to Lansing in the Catskills. Sturr, whom Niekro met a year ago at a polka concert at the Palm Beach Kennel Club, lives in Florida, N.Y., a town in the Cats-kills with a population of about 2,000. The following is an account of Niekro's visit as published in The Warwick Valley Dispatch (please excuse the spelling of his name):
NEIKRO VISITS FLORIDA