Return of the Knuckleball

How Lance Niekro returned to baseball

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- Posted on Apr 1, 2009

The ballgame was like every other Lance Niekro had played in Dodger Stadium in his four-year major league career. There was a big crowd—Niekro’s San Francisco Giants were playing their bitter rival, the Dodgers—and plenty of razzing from the stands. As Niekro, a struggling first baseman, stepped into the batter’s box, a leather lung shouted, “You’re a bum, just like your father.”

On any other night, Niekro might have shrugged it off. The idea that his father, Joe Niekro, was a bum was ridiculous. Joe Niekro had pitched 22 years in the majors, winning 221 games, pitching for a World Series winner and being honored as an All-Star. Beyond that, he had been a warm and generous father—and Lance’s best friend. But the words got to him that day because six months earlier Joe Niekro had died of cancer.

All the heart went out of Lance that night. For four years he had struggled to justify the Giants’ expectations—and to make his father proud. He had been the Giants’ second pick in the 1999 Baseball Draft—a young slugger with a lofty pedigree.

Niekro’s rookie year, in 2005, had been full of promise. In half a season, he hit 12 home runs and knocked in 46 runs–extrapolate those numbers over a full year and you have a budding star. The Giants groomed him to be their starting first baseman in 2006. But Niekro wasn’t up to the task. Within months he was back on the bench.

Lance was still trying to make sense of his failure when his dad died. “When Joe went down, [Lance’s] whole life went into the tank,” Phil Niekro, the Hall of Fame pitcher who was Joe’s brother and is Lance’s uncle, told The New York Times.

Lance threw himself into baseball the following spring, trying to resuscitate his career. He made the team, but was left with a hollow feeling. He wondered if he’d done it more out of respect for his father than for himself. Then came the night at Dodger Stadium, when that fan bellowed that he and his father were bums.

Niekro didn’t get a hit. A teammate found him after the game, nearly in tears. Two weeks later the Giants shipped him to the minors. At one time, a demotion would have torn at his stomach. But now he barely cared. He was released after the season.

That winter Niekro signed with the Houston Astros—his dad’s old team. When they released him, too, he decided to retire, although he was only 29, and take a job with a telecommunications firm.

For a few months Niekro was happy. Then spring training neared, and he felt the tug of baseball. He wasn’t sure what to do. One night his wife, Emilee, sat him down. “She asked me, ‘If you could ask your dad one question, what would it be?’”  Niekro took his time. “I’d want to know if he was proud of me,” he replied.

He wasn’t sure at first. He feared his dad would be disappointed that he’d given up baseball. Then he realized the truth. “He would have been proud of my marriage, our family, our life.” The pressure he’d felt since signing his first baseball contract evaporated.

Niekro knew he wasn’t good enough to return to the majors as a hitter. But, what if he reinvented himself as a pitcher? Since childhood, playing catch with his dad, Niekro had thrown the family touchstone: the knuckleball. He sought out his uncle, Phil. Together, they for worked for several weeks on Lance’s technique. Finally, last winter, he began to throw the pitch with confidence.

Phil helped land Lance a minor league contract with his old team, the Atlanta Braves. When he reported to the Braves’ camp in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, the team assigned him No. 36, the number Joe wore. In a few weeks they’ll assign him to one of their minor league teams where, Niekro said, “I’m going to give it my all.”

Ron Berler is a New York-based writer.

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