The two things about Phil Niekro that I remember most — and the lessons attached

When I think of Phil Niekro, two things come to mind. I don’t think of his knuckleball. I don’t think of his 318 wins. I don’t think of his Hall of Fame plaque.

No, when I think of Phil Niekro, who died Saturday at age 81, I think of how he pitched successfully after he’d been labeled a has-been by his own team, and how, after it became clear several years later that he was no longer a major league-quality pitcher, he returned to that team for one last game because he couldn’t bring himself to retire in any other uniform. 

Attached to those memories are three pretty good life lessons: 1) You don’t have to believe what people say about you; 2) It’s nice to prove the critics wrong; and 3) Don’t stop until you’ve reached your goal.

About that first memory: After the 1983 season, which was Niekro’s 20th in the majors, the Braves thought he was finished and told him he should retire. He didn’t want to retire, but the Braves released him anyway. He was 44 years old, definitely old by major league standards, but not necessarily old by knuckleball standards. He felt he could still bring it at the major league level, so he signed as a free agent with the Yankees. Over the next two seasons, all he did was win 32 games, make the All-Star team, and win his 300th career game. So much for being washed up.

In fact, during his 1984 season — his first away from the Braves — Niekro led the Yankees in wins (16), innings pitched (215.2), ERA (3.09), ERA+ (123) and strikeouts (136), while his 4.6 WAR was second only to Don Mattingly. Had Niekro remained with the Braves in 1984, and had he pitched to the level he achieved in New York, he would’ve been the team’s best pitcher.

“I think maybe in the back of my head I’m thinking, ‘What are the Braves thinking now? What are they thinking now?” Niekro told me in 2017. “Did they make a mistake or did they not?”

Perhaps the Braves offered a clue into their reformed Niekro thoughts when they held Phil Niekro Night on a Yankees off day in 1984. They showered him with gifts, including an original song, and retired his No. 35.

Still, while Niekro was never bitter, that divorce from the Braves a year earlier had stung him. Baseball is a business, and Niekro understood that. His release came because the Braves’ front office saw him as a stumbling block for the youth movement it planned to embrace in the coming years — a youth movement that, truth be told, failed miserably after Niekro’s departure, as the Braves embarked on a series of embarrassingly bad losing seasons. Meanwhile, Niekro’s mind was never far from Atlanta.

“I was still thinking about the Atlanta Braves almost every day I was in New York those two years,” he told me. 

Which brings me to the second memory: After Niekro‘s years with the Yankees, he had a stint in Cleveland and then a very short stint with the Blue Jays in 1987, when it became clear that he, indeed, was no longer a serviceable major league pitcher. The Braves, meanwhile, were barely a serviceable major league team in 1987. So as the season drew to a close, and after Niekro was released by the Blue Jays late in late August, the Braves and Niekro saw an opportunity for both parties to get proper closure after their breakup four years earlier. So Niekro signed a one-day contract for $1 to make one final appearance in a Braves uniform.

Sept. 27, 1987, was a homecoming. Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium, rarely full of fans in those days, was plenty crowded that Sunday afternoon as thousands came to bid Knucksie a proper farewell. As Niekro pitched to the Giants in those early innings, he escaped a few jams and it was like he had never left. But, because Father Time remains undefeated, the Giants eventually got to the 48-year-old Niekro in the fourth inning. He exited to a standing ovation and a video montage on the scoreboard. He took a no-decision as the Braves lost 15-6.

The outcome didn’t matter. Niekro had gotten what he wanted: to walk off the mound for the final time wearing a Braves uniform — because Phil Niekro loved the Braves.

That love lasted well after his playing days, as Niekro remained one of the greatest ambassadors the Braves ever had. 

I met Niekro in person just once, but I interviewed him several times on the phone. Each time he was accessible, kind, open and funny. That’s how I’ll remember him on a personal level. But when it comes to his career, I’ll always think of those two main memories — and the lessons they impart.

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