By Aris Sakellaridis
The passing of Hall of Famer Phil Niekro brought back memories of this great human being. It was 1995 when I came across him outside of Shea Stadium. By then he was the manager of the female baseball team, the Colorado Silver Bullets, and there he was walking with his players. I talked trash with him of how I could strike out all of them and he just laughed it off. Niekro’s players didn’t find my remarks humorous. One of them wanted to put her nails through my eyes, while another one looked like she wanted to rip my balls off and use them for batting practice. The knuckleball specialist understood my New York attitude and posed for a picture with me.
I ran into Niekro again several years later, around 2012, in one of the suites at Yankee Stadium. I reminisced about that first meeting I had with him and he was jokingly shocked that I was still alive. He thanked me for riling his team up, which led to five straight wins.
I then picked his brain about his pitching prowess and he lectured me that you don’t have to throw the ball 95 miles an hour or have a “Bert Blyleven curveball” to pitch in the Major Leagues. He pointed to himself as the perfect example. He also shared with me that, when he won his 300th game in 1985, he flipped the script and pitched nothing but fastballs, except for the three knuckleballs he threw to Toronto Blue Jay Jeff Burroughs, which led to a strikeout for the final out of an 8-0 victory.
The longtime Atlanta Brave was a Yankee when that happened, but what was even more surprising was, at age 46, Niekro became the oldest pitcher to toss a shutout. In his two seasons in pinstripes he won a total of 32 games.
Outside of each numbered suite is a plaque with the names of each Yankee player who wore that number. I walked with Niekro over to Suite 35 and he stopped in front of the plaque, put on his reading glasses and saw his name engraved along with numerous other Yankees. He smiled as he read off some of the names like Ralph Houk, Tippy Martinez, Paul Gibson, Don Gullett, Clay Bellinger and even Yogi Berra for the 1947 season. Niekro looked at the numerous other names and smiled broadly. He then uttered, “At least they (The Yankees) remembered me.” Rest in Peace, “Knucksie” and may you win another 300 games up in “Baseball Heaven.”