Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Rest in Peace, Little Knucksie

Joe Niekro (left) and brother, Phil, in 1987
How do you get your arms around a loss like the one suffered Friday when Joe Niekro died from a brain aneurysm?

Joe's death, at age 61, is simply crushing, not only to his family, his friends and to baseball, but to this reporter. Because Joe - Little Knucksie, embodied everything good about the people we cover.

Joe didn't pander to us. He merely thought it right, and professional, to honor the working relationship between players and the reporters who cover them. And because he could do that, he relaxed through a rewarding career, one that was as fun to cover as he obviously had fun playing.

By doing so, he helped make livable a road traveled by this reporter because, in a male-dominated sport like baseball, that road was and is often lonely and uncertain.

Little Knucksie, like his brother, Hall of Famer Phil, got that. And they realized that just by being humane, understanding and cooperative, they remained always the gentlemenly souls and genuinely good people that their parents raised.

Joe, one of the true cards I've ever covered, never took himself too seriously. He and Phil not only left in their wake over 500 victories, but 5 million laughs and as many irreplacable memories.

Joe never adopted the officious attitude that it was somehow beneath him to cooperate. He knew it didn't cost him anything to simply be honest, available and civil, not matter the circumstances. And, as evidence that genes count, what he learned from Phil he handed down to his son, Lance, a personable young first baseman with the San Francisco Giants.

That Joe treated all members of the media with respect made him special. In the end, it also made him a friend, one I cherished long after he stopped pitching. One I will miss and mourn.

I have to go, now, Little Knucksie. Because, for some reason, the screen is too blurry to see.

Rest in peace, my friend. Rest in peace.


JAMES P. LOGAN said...


That you had to report the death of Joe Niekro as baseball news was one thing, part of the strictly professional day-to-day news items a reporter must cover. But thanks for revealing the personal side of your relationship with Joe and his brother Phil. In an era where loutish behavior (Gary Sheffield, Kenny Rogers) towards the media has become all to common, Joe Niekro was a breed apart, with his gentlemanly ways, as well as his fun side that you described. The inscription on the Niekros' photo said it all.
You were a special person to both of them and a good friend, so please accept this reader's sympathies, and I'm sure I speak for many others, accept my condolences on the untimely loss of your friend, Joe.
Dennis Orlandini
Irvington, NJ said...

Let's not forget that Joe Niekro, while under the shadow of his Hall Of Fame brother, Phil, had some great moments and one "Hall Of Fame" moment that most pitchers would give their souls for.
Those 144 franchise leading wins, could have been a much higher total if Houston wasn't such a weak hitting team and the pitchers had to shoulder most of the load.
His 221 overall wins and .520 winning percentage would likewise have improved if the Astros had a more fearsome lineup.
His greatest moment came at the end of his second consecutive 20- win season.
The Dodgers finished the season with Houston in a head-to head battle between the top two teams in the NL West in 1980. Houston needed just one win to clinch the division. However Los Angeles swept the series to force a playoff. The Dodgers had all the momentum going to steal the division title, except for one thing. It was Little Knucksie's turn in the rotation.
Niekro's knuckleball fluttered that day and he mixed in other pitches to keep the Dodgers off balance. From the first or second inning onward it became apparent that the Dodgers batters were going to get nowhere with Niekro that day.
Joe went the distance, the Astros got some timely hitting and I believe the final score was Houston 7, LA 1. Niekro had turned back the tide of the Dodgers late season comeback, and the Astros had their first championship in franchise history.
Not many pitchers could have done what Niekro did that day - that was his career's absolute pinnacle, a shining moment in a pretty darn good career that had lots of other highlights.
Dennis Orlandini
Irvington, NJ said...

Re: Astros failing to retire Joe Niekro's number and related baseball topics.

Call this topic "Failure to receive their due" - I'll do this Keith Olberman - Countdown On MSNBC Style. Olberman nightly points out three examples of the human spirit not functioning at their peaks, examples of how we have not become a "kinder gentler nation", but just the opposite, how we've become a greedier more self-centered and dumber one - a segment he calls "Worse, Worser, Worst". I'll even throw in a fourth-place Dishonorable Mention.

For fourth place Dishonorable Mention I'd choose a future scenario that might unfold over this Winter.
D.M. goes to the Yankees, if they don't bring back Bernie Williams for a final season in '07 to close out a 17-year career as a Yankee, and would it kill Steinbrenner or break him financially to give Bernie a Bernie Williams Day or Night. If Williams continues his career next season in anything other than Yankees pinstipes, it would be as strange as seeing Craig Biggio in anything other than an Astros uniform. Just get a one year deal done and don't keep Old Bern' hanging.
Third place - "WORSE" honors go to the topic of Ms.Smith's column - The Houston Astros for failing to honor or retire the number of the winningest pitcher in their franchise history, the late Joe Niekro.
I flip-flop on the two worst offenses regarding baseball people failing to get their due from baseball teams and institutions. The number one transgression and the number two transgression are really neck and neck.
I'll go against popular opinion to say that the failure to elect John 'Buck' O'Neil to the baseball Hall Of Fame is merely the second worst offense and merits "WORSER" Countdown style status. Of course his advanced age at the time of the election,94, the tears that his friends and supporters shed in Kansas City at the Negro Leagues Museum at the announcement of his rejection, and now his subsequent passing without baseball's greatest honor, have compounded the injustice of the situation. Hall Of Fame voters that made the decision to exclude Buck, and Hall Of Fame officials that stuck by that decision inadvertantly dug a deep hole for the Hall's prestige and credibility.
In First Place with "WORST" honors is that same committee for its failure to elect Orestes "Minnie" Minoso. Minoso is the GodFather of all Black Latinos who have played in the five and a half decades since Minnie homered in his first game with the White Sox in 1951. Could one player's success or failure have a greater impact on the game, other than Jackie Robinson's, espescially considering the Latino -oriented demographics of the game today. Every single Black Latino player who has played since him owes Minnie a debt of gratitude. It's a wonder that the Latino community didn't beat the drum harder for his election last February. It seems that as that election approached Latinos were more concerned with the issue, "Should every team be made to retire Roberto Clemente's number", in the same fashion that Jackie Robinson's number had been retired throughout baseball. That debate peaking last February drew attention away from Minoso's cause. The Latino community however was not the culpit, clearly it was the HOF's Negro Leagues Committee voters.
Only the eighth Black to reach the big leagues, he faced most of the ire and obnoxious taunting of racists that Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby did, and speaking a different language and coming from a different culture introduced a whole different set of problems. But he succeeded big time on the major leagues level, a seven-time all-star, after being a Negro Leagues All-Star and a star in his native Cuba for years before the racial barrier fell. I personally believe that if Minoso could have played in the major leagues at age 20, instead of his belated start at 28 due to race restictions, he would have enjoyed a first ballot election Hall Of Fame type of career. To me when you add together that Minoso was a standout player first in Cuba, then in the Negro Leagues, and finally in the major leagues, his election to the Hall Of Fame should have been no more difficult than adding 1+1+1=3. A star at all three levels equals a Hall Of Fame career.
Negro Leagues voters displayed short-sightedness, insensitivity, and even stupidity in denying Minoso Cooperstown honors. That committee took some doing, but in failing to elect Minoso (and Buck as well) they have snagged first place or "WORST" dishonors, and as Olberman usually ends his bit, I'll chide along with him with his "Clearly they are the WORST", exit line.
Dennis Orlandini
Irvington, NJ