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On not forgetting Phil Niekro

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Looking back on a storied career

Phil Niekro Braves Photo by Ken Levine/Getty Images

Walking off the field for the final time as a professional, he was engulfed in the adulation of well-wishers who had come to celebrate the unique and legendary career of a man whose path to success was as unpredictable as the pitch that made him famous: it was 34 years ago that the great Phil Niekro returned to the mound for one last start with the Atlanta Braves, the team for whom he had pitched for the greater part of three decades. A team whose apexes of success came not during his tenure, but in the years preceding and following his career.

Between the end of the 2020 COVID-shortened season and the beginning of this current campaign, the Atlanta Braves lost a trio of legends whose Hall of Fame careers ended well before most of the current generation of Acuña, Albies and Freeman fans were born.

Henry Aaron’s passing has led to a season of celebration, not only for the Braves franchise, but across all of Major League Baseball. Aaron was one of the greatest players in the history of the game. His post-playing career as a Braves executive was also impactful. There is no doubt that an argument could be made that Aaron’s contributions to the game are equal to those of any one other individual. From his number in the outfield at Truist Park to his widow’s on-field appearance at this year’s All-Star Game, the light being cast on Aaron’s career has been persistent and lustrous.

For another – Don Sutton – his mark on Braves country lasted for decades as a broadcaster whose career paralleled the rise of the franchise in the 1990s through the return to success a few season ago (save for a few seasons in D.C). While the Hall of Fame pitcher never played with the franchise for which he covered games, his Southeast Alabama roots and understanding of his audience endeared him to a fanbase. Broadcasters are rarely celebrated the same as players; despite the decades of impact, the lack of tribute to Sutton was to be expected given how the Braves have (or haven’t) handled memorializing their coverage crews.

And then there’s Niekro – the Hall of Fame pitcher whose career of mastering the oddity — the knuckleball — led to the nickname for which he was known: Knucksie.

Phil Niekro was one of the greatest pitchers in the 150-year history of the Braves franchise, despite not making his second major league start until he was 28 years old in 1967. He was one of the longest-tenured players in Braves franchise history – debuting in 1964 and retiring in 1987 – with fewer than four seasons spent in a uniform other than the Braves.

Yes, he’s a Atlanta Braves great, but just how great?

For the Atlanta segment of Braves history, there is no one with more WAR (Baseball-Reference version) than Niekro. No one. Not Aaron, not Greg Maddux, not Tom Glavine, not John Smoltz, not Dale Murphy, and no, neither Chipper nor Andruw Jones. And that’s likely not changing, even if Freddie Freeman’s career continues in Atlanta past the 2021 season.

To reiterate: Phil Niekro leads all players in (one specific formulation of) WAR while playing with the Atlanta Braves.

Yes, he’s a Hall of Famer, but just how great was his career? Better than you probably realize.

Niekro was one of the greatest pitchers of all-time. How great? He is 11th in career WAR as a pitcher – and was 8th when he retired.

To further illustrate this point, Niekro is tied for 35th all-time in WAR for all players. Who is he tied with? Cal Ripken, Jr.

I’m going to break the fourth wall here – hi, Colt Cabana – when I was writing this piece, I inserted the WAR information several weeks after I started it. After typing in Niekro’s standing amongst baseball’s immortals, I had to stop and exhale. I kept looking around aimlessly trying to find the words that would tie this piece together without sounding bitter or that this article’s tone was negative toward Aaron. That, dear reader, caused a bigger inhale than my earlier exhale. I digress.

After being reminded of just how impactful Niekro’s career was on the Atlanta Braves, isn’t the lack of season-long tributes to him cause for all of us to cross our collective arms, and mutter, “huh” in hushed bewilderment?

Other than his number being sewn on the hat with that of Aaron’s, the lack of ongoing celebration of a franchise icon has been odd, to say the least. Admittedly, I’ve watched only a percentage of the TV broadcasts, but I don’t recall much being said about Niekro.

Tonight, the Braves will host Phil Niekro Night as the team hosts another of Niekro’s former teams, the New York Yankees. While the Braves will pay tribute to Knucksie during the game with his number on the pitching mound and a few other celebratory activities, limiting the honoring of his contributions to the franchise to a late-August, Tuesday night game doesn’t seem like nearly enough.

At the time of his passing, many articles were written about his career – and some highlighted speculation that the end of his tenure in Atlanta in the early ‘80’s was shrouded in organizational drama. Maybe there’s more to the story than most of us are aware; still, it just seems odd more wasn’t done to honor his legacy.

Back to the warm, early-Fall afternoon of September 27, 1987. The Falcons were enjoying the highlight of their 3-12 season that Sunday by enjoying a bye week. I ventured, with my family, to the upper deck of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium to see the old man’s final start against the Giants.

An ovation from the late-season crowd welcomed the 48-year-old Niekro at the top of the first, one in which he flirted with disaster by walking the bases loaded before getting out of the jam. He worked around a single in the second for a relatively stress-free inning. In the third, he got into trouble again but escaped another bases-loaded conundrum by inducing an inning-ending double-play. Bob Brenly helped Niekro escape both jams, with a liner to third in the first, and the double play ball in the third.

I remember thinking, at the time, that I hoped the Braves would pull him after he came out to pitch in the fourth. Working three scoreless innings and exiting the game would have been about as storybook of an ending as the awful Braves teams of the late 80s could muster.

In the bottom of the third, the Braves erupted for five runs off Atlee Hammaker, lifting the Braves to a 5-0 lead going into the fourth. Could Knucksie survive two more innings and pick up the win in his last start?

Niekro did come back out in the fourth but he would get no further. The first five batters all reached. With the bases loaded for the third time in four frames, Niekro’s career came to an end with the Braves leading 5-2.

As Braves manager Chuck Tanner walked to the mound, the robust crowd of a half-full Atlanta-Fulton County stadium rose to their feet to cheer the man who made so many middling-to-worse seasons tolerable; to provide one last audible “Thank You!” for the workmanlike decades spent crafting a legendary career by making a baseball do the antithesis of what it is supposed to do.

For several minutes, cheers rained down on the field as Niekro stood, emotional, on the mound with Tanner. As a video tribute began playing, the crowd’s cheer found another level as Tanner escorted Knucksie to the dugout. The exultation continued as the man wearing 35 walked back forward first base to watch the video, which concluded with a still-shot of the baseball Hall of Fame placard. With that, one last eruption from the fans continued as Niekro made his way back to the home dugout before a wave to the crowd.

The Braves lost 16-5. Chuck Cary, who relieved Niekro, promptly served up a grand slam to Candy Maldonado to close the book on Knucksie’s illustrious career.

The Braves gave away a print of an oil painting of Niekro to fans on the day of his last start. As the game wound down, a steady stream of paper airplanes fluttered through the air as numerous fans who stayed began to make large paper airplanes out of the Niekro prints abandoned on pallets in the concourses throughout the stadium. Watching the unpredictable journey of these airplanes served as an unintentional – yet fitting tribute – for a man whose fluttering, unorthodox pitch landed him in Cooperstown.

Here we are back in 2021, nearing the end of the season following his passing. A season during which one franchise icon was robustly celebrated and another was largely forgotten.

Phil Niekro, a master of a pitch that is so difficult to throw it has all but been abandoned by the game, has seen his memory suffer a similar fate this season.