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There is a guy that we all know,
At about 7 a.m. on Feb. 19, Phil Niekro Jr. was driving south on I-95, just north of West Palm Beach. He had left Atlanta at 11 p.m. the night before in his Dodge Ramcharger, and he was heading for his 25th spring training. "I've done it so many times," he said recently, "I could've put the truck on automatic pilot and it would've ended up in the parking lot of Municipal Stadium in West Palm."
But this time his destination lay farther south, in Fort Lauderdale. "I was driving along, thinking maybe I'd stop by the Braves' clubhouse anyway, have a cup of coffee, say hello to some of the guys. Then I told myself, 'Hey, you don't work there anymore.' " So, to blow away his maudlin thoughts as he approached the Palm Beach Gardens exit, Niekro rolled down the windows, popped in a cassette of his favorite polka group, the Jimmy Sturr Band, and turned the Ramcharger's stereo up to nearly full volume.
Niekro was the first player in the Yankee clubhouse that morning. He sat there, watched the other players come in, exchanged greetings with them. "At first, I kept thinking, 'Look at all these guys who got traded over to the Braves over the winter.' Then I thought that maybe I'm on some kind of All-Star team with these guys. I just sat in my locker—it must have been for three hours—looking at the Yankee uniform. Every once in a while I'd go and get a grapefruit juice, half expecting that when I came back the shirt would have turned [Braves'] light blue. I didn't put the uniform on until the last minute. I was afraid it wouldn't look good, I was afraid it wouldn't feel right."
Pinstripes look just fine on Phil Niekro. After spending 25 of his 45 years in the Braves organization, Niekro is indeed a New York Yankee. Through Sunday he was 7-2, with an American League-leading ERA of 1.20. He's the toast of two towns, New York and—ha-ha—Atlanta, and he has even been dubbed St. Knucksie. His good friend Jimmy Sturr has written Hey Niekro!, the first verse of which we've already danced to, one and a two and, one and a two and....
It isn't quite fair that Niekro should be getting almost as much acclaim for winning seven games in New York as he did for winning 268 games in Milwaukee and Atlanta—no, he didn't pitch for the Boston Bees. But he's one man who has it coming to him. "He's a lovely guy," says his new manager, Yogi Berra. "He's also been a lifesaver."
Without Niekro, the Yankees, in sixth place through Sunday with a 19-25 record, would be in even direr straits. That's why the Yankees have talked to Sturr about appearing at a possible Polka Night later this season. And, on Aug. 6, the Braves will honor Niekro with his own night, unveiling a model of a sculpture done by artist Ed Dwight, who wrought the figure of Hank Aaron that now stands outside Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Niekro's statue will cost an estimated $150,000, and the Braves are taking donations from fans. Aaron may be baseball's home-run king, but Niekro is the most popular athlete in the city's history. Dwight hasn't started work on the piece yet, but the classic pose would be Niekro, hands on knees, looking in for the knuckleball sign.
It almost goes without saying that Niekro and his younger brother, Joe, of the Astros, throw a knuckleball, the mysterious pitch with no spin that does polka hops as it wends its way toward the plate. The knuckleball's effect is to make hitters look foolish. It can also make some of baseball's non-playing personnel look foolish. Niekro spent more than six years in the minors before he stuck with the Braves, and there were times when the organization wanted to release the kid who was signed out of a tryout camp for $500 in 1958. Twenty-five years later the Braves did grant him his release, telling him they didn't need him anymore. They saw his 11-10 '83 record (3.97 ERA) as the beginning of the end.
On Oct. 6 of last year, Ted Turner had to tell Niekro that manager Joe Torre and his coaching staff wanted him to retire. It was a painful task for Turner, who's very close to Niekro. But Torre had said, "When I was a catcher, I couldn't catch him; when I was an opposing player, I couldn't hit him; and the last two years, I've found out I can't manage him." The Braves never did make a formal announcement of Niekro's release, and on Oct. 7 Niekro ended up holding an impromptu farewell press conference in the Braves' clubhouse. The Braves later stated that their reason for asking Niekro to retire was that they wanted to make room for Ken Dayley in the starting rotation.
Suffice it to say none of this has worked out the way the Braves had planned. The 25-year-old Dayley was sent down to Richmond on May 1 after getting off to an 0-3 start with an ERA of 5.30, but not before The Atlanta Journal started running a chart comparing Day-ley's stats to Niekro's. Niekro, well aware of the pressure on Dayley, has phoned him twice to offer his encouragement. Niekro told him that he, too, was sent down to Richmond, when he was 27.