Countdown To Pitchers And Catchers: #35 Phil Niekro
Mike B. | On 16, Jan 2012
Today continues our countdown to the start of Indians pitchers and catchers reporting to Goodyear, Arizona on February 20. We’ll count down the days, profiling a former Indian who wore the corresponding number. Some players will be memorable, others just our favorites and some, the only one we could find who wore that number. Today, we remember a moment with Phil Niekro.
By Mike Brandyberry
“What’s your name, son?” Phil Niekro asked.
I was eight and stood there stunned, mouth probably open and speechless. I vaguely remember putting the sound together to tell him my first name. It was 1987, Niekro’s final year as a major leaguer and the Indians were already playing out the string in what would become another 100-loss season.
I was already a baseball fanatic, and in the old days of poor attendance and Cleveland Municipal Stadium, it didn’t take a lot to attract attention as being a very knowledgeable, eight year old, baseball nut. My father and I had met a man whose son was the Indians’ bat boy that year and he took us to the Indians’ locker room after a game. The contest had just ended and we were standing in the doorway when Niekro walked by, saw me and stopped.
At eight, I remember already knowing that he was a 300-game winner and a knuckleball pitcher headed to the Baseball Hall of Fame. I knew he had played countless years with the Atlanta Braves and won 20 games several times and appeared in numerous All-Star games. I even knew that he and Steve Carlton had become the first two 300-game winners to play on the same roster that summer, with my Indians.
But in that moment, my dad and I both stood there stunned and said very little. He shook both our hands, smiled and walked away. My dad is not a guy who remembers a lot of details in life, but this has certainly become one of those timeless father-son moments that we each remember. As I grew older we each have talked about what we should have done. I thought I should have asked for an autograph, my dad says he should have taken a picture. Regardless, we each felt like the moment slipped by us. Maybe that’s what makes it a moment for each of us.
He was in the midst of his final season, going 7-11 with the Tribe before being traded to the Toronto Blue Jays in August. After making three starts, losing two, he was released where he resigned with the Atlanta Braves—the team he played 20 of his 24 seasons with—to start the final game of the season. He pitched three innings, not factoring in the decision, but leaving to a standing ovation.
Niekro dabbled in baseball after 1987, teaching others, including Tim Wakefield, how to throw an effective knuckleball and even managing a women’s baseball team, The Silver Bullets, that barnstormed through minor league towns playing independent and affiliated teams. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997.
Looking back at that moment, standing in the doorway to the Indians clubhouse, I don’t believe for a second that Niekro would remember it, but I wonder what his thoughts were at the time? He had to have made countless other boys speechless over his 24 year career, but he also had to know his time was running out and that he would no longer be a part of those moments. Quite possibly, one of his last chances to impress a young fan, was one of my first times to be impressed by a major league baseball player.
It is a moment my dad and I will never forget.
Photo: Sporting News