Lance Niekro Dusts Off a Family Heirloom: The Knuckleball
By TYLER KEPNER
LAKELAND, Fla. — The San Francisco Giants hired a manager on Oct. 27, 2006, and one of their outfielders, Todd Linden, decided to pull a prank on first baseman Lance Niekro. He called Niekro and assumed an authoritative voice, pretending to be the new manager, Bruce Bochy.
“No,” Niekro said, so suddenly and sternly that Linden, his former roommate in the minors, knew something was wrong. Niekro was in no mood for jokes. His father, Joe, had died of a brain aneurysm that day. Nothing would ever be the same.
“He didn’t have his partner anymore,” Linden said.
Joe Niekro pitched 22 years in the major leagues, ending in 1988, when Lance was 9. A few years later, when Joe was coaching in Bend, Ore., he taught Lance the knuckleball, the pitch that had made him an All-Star and carried his brother Phil to the Hall of Fame.
They started lightly, almost lobbing the ball, just to get the feel and rhythm of the darting and fluttering pitch. Gradually they tossed harder, from farther away, the father extracting an unusual strand of his son’s DNA. The pitch has been there for Lance Niekro ever since, but for years he defied traditional baseball genetics.
The Elias Sports Bureau studied 190 father-son combinations in major league history and found that in 143 cases — three out of four — sons do just what their fathers did. That is, if the father was a position player, so was the son. And if the father was a pitcher, so was the son.
After parts of four seasons with the Giants, and a brief retirement after his release from a Houston Astros farm team last May, Niekro is doing what comes naturally. He has embraced his inner knuckler at age 30, making a comeback as a pitcher at the Atlanta Braves’ minor league camp.
“I’m not going to say that I have an excellent knuckleball right now,” Niekro said last week in an interview at a restaurant here, his hometown. “But I think I have the makings of it, and I’m working hard at it.”
Niekro was such a good hitter as an amateur that his father believed his bat could get him to the majors. His instincts were right. The Giants drafted Niekro in the second round in 2000 out of Florida Southern, and three years later he was in the majors.
Niekro had some power — 17 homers in 499 at-bats — but he hit just .246 and never spent a full year with the Giants. His true talent, perhaps, was on display before games, when he fiddled with the knuckleball, capping teammates’ knees during games of catch.
“I made him tell me it was coming after a while,” said the Yankees’ Cody Ransom, who played with Niekro in the minors. “He blew me up. Crushed me.”
Niekro was the Giants’ opening-day first baseman in 2006, and that May he hit two home runs in a game against the Florida Marlins. It was the last time his father saw him play, and the only multihomer game of Niekro’s career. Five months later, Joe Niekro was dead at 61.
Niekro’s final memory of his father was warm — a night playing cards and talking baseball at the family’s fishing cabin in the Florida Everglades. Joe Niekro left behind another son, Lance’s half brother, J. J., who is nearly 20 years younger. Lance has become a father figure to him, and Phil Niekro plays the role for Lance.
“Everything Lance ever learned about baseball came from Joe,” Phil Niekro said. “Joe spent hundreds of hours with Lance in the batting cage. They were the best of friends. Then all of a sudden, your best friend in life is gone and you don’t know where else to go. We were close before and we’re close now, but I can’t replace Joe.”
Nobody could, and Niekro struggled with the loss. He poured his energy into making the Giants out of spring training in 2007, but when he did it, it was strangely deflating. Memories of his father were too close.
One night at Dodger Stadium — where Joe Niekro had twirled a complete-game victory for Houston in a one-game playoff in 1980 — a fan razzed Lance Niekro while he stood in the on-deck circle.
“You’re a bum!” the fan screamed. “Just like your dad!”
Niekro went hitless that night, and after the game he was despondent. Linden approached him on the team bus, but Niekro did not want to talk. He was near tears.
With a .176 average, Niekro was taken off the 40-man roster within two weeks, bumped to the minors and unclaimed by another team. What troubled him most was his reaction. Failure did not gnaw at him the way it used to.
“A lot of guys say whenever somebody passes away, the best therapy for them is to get back on the field; it takes their mind off it,” Niekro said. “It was the opposite for me. Maybe it was because I had so many memories on the field with my dad. That wasn’t the therapy for me.”
His stint with an Astros farm team lasted just 17 games the next season. No team called after his release, and Niekro was almost relieved. He had no desire to join an independent league.
Niekro was tired of baseball, and baseball, it seemed, had no use for him. He declined his uncle’s suggestion to work on the knuckleball.
“When Joe went down, his whole life went in the tank,” Phil Niekro said. “He didn’t have any drive, he didn’t have any goals set for him. He didn’t have anything in the future as far as baseball.”
Niekro took a desk job in Temple Terrace, Fla., buying materials for a company that built cellphone towers. He was grateful for the work in a sluggish economy, but after several months, baseball tugged at him again.
Niekro called the Detroit Tigers, who train in Lakeland, about possibly coaching someday. Before a World Series game in St. Petersburg, he took a business card from a broadcaster, thinking he might pursue that career. A conversation with his wife, Emilee, led him back to the field.
“If you could ask your dad one question,” she said, “what would it be?”
“My question was, I’d want to know if he was proud of me right now,” Niekro said. “At first I didn’t think he would be, because I wasn’t playing ball. And then I realized that it didn’t matter what I was doing, he’d be proud, because I’m happily married, I’m going to start a family sometime. He’d be proud of me for that, not for what I’m getting paid for.”
It was an epiphany for Niekro, freeing him from the notion that playing baseball meant trying to live for his father. That burden had been too much to bear. He decided to play ball again for himself, and turned to his uncle, who was still involved with the Braves and arranged for a minor league offer.
“Phil is going to be a great resource in all of this,” said Kurt Kemp, the Braves’ player development director. “We don’t really have a template for building a knuckleball pitcher.”
Niekro worked on the pitch all winter, sometimes throwing five or six times a week. He has visited Phil at his home near Atlanta and begun throwing bullpen sessions at the Braves’ Disney World complex, becoming familiar with subtleties like holding runners, reading a catcher’s signals and fielding the new position.
“The biggest thing is going to be making adjustments from pitch to pitch and figuring out what you did wrong,” said Tim Wakefield, the veteran Boston Red Sox pitcher who converted from infielder to knuckleballer 20 years ago. “You have to know your mechanics, know your checkpoints. I’m a little more upright when I throw mine. He’ll have to find his own slot because we’re all different.”
There is no rush. If Niekro is not ready to join an affiliate by April, Kemp said he could work in extended spring training games, whose results do not count. 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.
The Braves gave Niekro No. 36, which his father wore for much of his major league career, including the night in 1987 when an emery board slipped from his back pocket and earned him a suspension. Umpires suspected Joe Niekro of scuffing the ball, a charge his son disputes. Joe Niekro, he said, carried a nail file in his back pocket every day until he died.
Mastery of the knuckleball starts with the fingernails, as Lance Niekro can explain. Too long, and the nails become soft. Too short, and they cannot dig into the seams of a ball.
Niekro used to bite his fingernails, but there are two he never bites anymore — on the index and middle fingers of his right hand. He files them regularly, to keep the length just right, but he is not quite like his father. The latest Niekro knuckler is still a work in progress.
“Don’t carry a file,” he wrote in a text message, “... yet.”