Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro says he still follows baseball intently, watching games and keeping up with the standings nearly 27 years after his major league career ended.
But it’s not so much the Atlanta Braves or any of his other former teams that command the bulk of his attention these days – it’s the Lanier Longhorns 12-year-old team from Buford, Ga.
That’s what brought the 318-game winner to Myrtle Beach this week, where his grandson Chase Niekro and the Longhorns are playing in the annual “Beach Blast” tournament at The Ripken Experience.
“I’ve been helping him since he started playing baseball with tee-ball,” Niekro said. “There’s not too many things that separates me from watching my grandson play baseball or practice. That’s my top priority.”
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Bobby Holland, the general manager of The Ripken Experience, said it was actually Niekro who reached out through the team’s coach to tournament organizers about offering his time at the event, which has a record 70 teams from 13 states this year.
The 75-year-old baseball legend was the headliner for the tournament’s opening ceremonies Sunday, throwing out a ceremonial first pitch and posing for pictures with as many of the teams as time allowed.
“He had reached out to us just to see if he could do anything for the kids. He was very gracious with his time,” Holland said. “... You’d be surprised the amount of ex-Major Leaguers that just walk through the gates. A lot of times we don’t know they’re here, they just show up, but having a Hall of Famer definitely brings it to a new level, especially for young kids who are impressionable and that’s their ultimate goal.”
Niekro was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997 after a 24-year career with four teams, including parts of 21 seasons with the Braves. He ranks 16th all-time in wins and 11th in strikeouts with 3,342 as a durable knuckleballer who pitched until the age of 48.
His presence with the Longhorns, meanwhile, isn’t a one-week deal for the baseball legend. Rick Garofalo, the team’s head coach, said Niekro is a fixture at practices and games, taking an active role in working with not only the team’s pitchers but all the players.
“We’ve been coaching together since pee wee ball when they were little rugrats, seven years old,” Garofalo said. “John, his son, is my neighbor. ... From day one, Phil’s [been] salt of the Earth. He wants to be involved. He’s at every practice he can be unless he’s traveling out of town. He stresses the fundamentals with these kids ... and getting these kids started the right way – what it means to play baseball, what it means to play hard for all six innings, setting that tone with the kids. And of course, play to have fun.”
While none of the team’s players were alive the last time Niekro pitched in a Major League game in 1987, Garofalo says they know of his stature in the game nonetheless.
“The kids just [have] open attention when he talks,” he said. “And when we go to parks, one dad will recognize him and you’ll have little seven, eight-year-olds come up with their baseball and [say], ‘Can I please have an autograph?’ ... He’s real good about it.”
Aside from the opening ceremonies Sunday, Niekro is mostly keeping a low profile this week – or trying to, at least. He’s here for the baseball, but if someone approaches between games and wants a picture or an autograph, he’ll oblige.
More often than not, he says, it’s the parents handing a baseball to their kids to run over and ask for the signature.
“I don’t hide, but I don’t make myself that much available to everybody. I’m in the dugout a lot, so they have to catch me going from the dugout to the car,” he said. “And once word gets around, then kids start coming up with baseballs and hats. The young kids don’t remember me too much, but their parents and their fathers and mothers and grandmas and grandpas recognize me, and they kind of slide it to the young kids.”
As for his signature pitch, Niekro said he would like to see more knuckleball pitchers in baseball today. R.A. Dickey of the Toronto Blue Jays is the only one of prominence at this point, and Niekro says there’s a reason for that.
“There’s nobody out there to teach it to them,” he said. “Everybody can’t throw 90 miles an hour. They’re looking for all the 90-mile-an-hour guys, good curveballs, but a lot of young guys can’t do that. It’s an avenue to get [to the big leagues], but there just aren’t any knuckleball teachers out there. They won’t let you do it in little league or high school or college or the minor leagues. You grow up, everybody’s telling you you can’t do it. ...
“You’ve got to start young. I was throwing knuckleballs when I was a freshman in high school.”
Niekro said it’s still too soon to start working on passing the pitch down to his grandson, though.
But he does hope Chase will one day follow his path to the Major Leagues in some way or another.
“Hopefully I’m around long enough to watch my grandson play [in the big leagues],” he said. “He had a good day [Monday]. He was 2-for-3 and turned three double plays in the game, so that was a good game to watch.”