Knucksie Niekro Back With The Braves

lance-niekro1 His father was pitcher Joe Niekro, his uncle was Hall of Fame knuckleball pitcher Phil Niekro. But Lance made it to the San Francisco Giants as a firstbaseman, batting .246 with 17 home runs in 499 big league at bats. After being released by the Houston Astros farm team last May, the younger Niekro has embraced his inner knuckleball and give it a go with the Atlanta Braves.

Lance learned everything he knew about baseball from his knuckleball pitcher (who started throwing it after 1971 in the bigs) father Joe, who pitched 22 years in the big leagues, and was a 20 game winner twice. Lance learned the pitch as a youngster from his father, but would be the Giants opening day firstbaseman in 2006, hitting two homers in a game against the Marlins, his only multi-homer game of his career, the last time his father saw him play, father Joe was dead of a brain aneurysm five months later.

Lance was despondent, playing baseball only brought back painful memories of his deceased father, and the closeness the two had experienced on the diamond. He was released by Houton’s minor league team 17 games into the next season. He was tired of baseball and declined his uncle’s request to work on his knuckler.

After a few months of working in the real world, baseball tugged at him. He thought of coaching or possibly broadcaster, before a conversation with his wife led him back onto the field. “I’d want to know if my dad was proud of me right now,” was what Lance would ask his dad, if he could. He concluded that answer wouldn’t be tied to how much money he was earning or whether he was in baseball, but rather he would be proud because his son was happily married and soon would be starting a family. That’s when the light clicked on and Lance decided he wanted to play baseball for himself, not for his dad.

Phil Niekro, still involved with the Braves, the team he’d starred for, arranged for a minor league deal. Lance worked on his knuckleball all winter, sometimes throwing five or six days a week. Niekro could have a long career ahead of him; his father and uncle combined for 450 of their 539 victories after each had turned 30.

I’ll be pulling for Lance Niekro. There’s a baseball in my bedroom with Joe Niekro’s autograph on it, also signing that ball were Woodie Fryman and Chuck Seelbach. In 1972 they all pitched for the AL East first place Detroit Tigers. I have a special place in my heart for knuckleball pitchers. Maybe it’s because I’m a White Sox fan, and grew up watching Hall of Famer Hoyt Wilhelm (only saw him on TV for the Sox in 1968, my first year watching baseball), Wilbur Wood (the last pitcher to start both ends of a doubleheader), Eddie Fisher (was 15-7 with 24 saves in 82 games out of the pen for the Sox in 1965, before my time, but returned to the Southside in 1973), Charlie Hough (was in the Sox rotation in 1991 & 92, as a 43 & 44 year old, winning 9 & 7 games, pitching in the bigs till he was 46, 216-216 record 25 years), and then there are old timers Eddie Cicotte & Hall of Famer Ted Lyons (who started throwing a knuckler after a 1929 arm injury). Then there was the Washington Senators of the forties who featured an all knuckleball rotation.

I’ve said for years I’d like to see each team have a knuckleball instructor. When pitchers are no longer prospects, they could try throwing the knuckler. The latest knuckleball pitchers are Tim Wakefield, Steve Sparks, and the infamous Charlie Haeger.

Discussion Area - Leave a Comment