Young Niekro following family tradition
Former first baseman trying to return as knuckleball pitcher
ATLANTA -- Growing up as a Niekro, it was only natural for Lance Niekro to mess around with a knuckleball whenever he was playing catch. His father, Joe, and Hall of Fame uncle, Phil, utilized the pitch to combine for 539 wins in the Major Leagues.
A Niekro without a knuckleball would be like a Molina without a catcher's mitt.
But for the first time in his life, the 29-year-old Niekro finds himself looking to utilize the knuckleball as something more than idle entertainment. With assistance from his uncle, he's hoping the pitch will allow him to resuscitate his Major League career, which he began as an offensive player.
With the intention of becoming a pitcher, Niekro has signed a Minor League contract with the Braves and already received some valuable instruction from Phil Niekro, who used the knuckleball to carry him to Cooperstown and an Atlanta record 266 wins.
"I'm not doing this as gimmick or anything just because I am a Niekro," he said. "I'm serious about this and I believe this is something that I can do. I'm not doing this just because of my name. I'm doing this to make a name for myself."
While serving as one of his teammates in the 2004 Arizona Fall League, Braves All-Star catcher Brian McCann remembers Niekro throwing some good-looking knuckleballs while playing catch in the outfield grass.
"Those were some of the best [knuckleballs] I've ever seen," McCann said. "If anybody is capable of doing this, he's certainly the guy."
The Braves have signed Niekro without any specific expectations. Given that he's never previously pitched at the professional level, they simply are looking forward to the chance to see him make progress throughout Spring Training.
"I'm just going to work as hard as I can at it," Niekro said. "I'm going to give it my best shot."
Before returning to Atlanta on Friday night, Phil Niekro spent three days this week in Lakeland, Fla., attempting to teach his nephew the finer points of the knuckleball that his own father had taught him and Joe in the backyard of their Lansing, Ohio, home.
"This isn't a new chapter in his baseball life," said the Hall of Fame knuckleballer who compiled 318 wins in 24 Major League seasons. "This is a whole new book, because he's starting over. But it's not like it's completely new to him. He's thrown it before, and he's faced it. This is something that's in the Niekro blood, and he has it in him to do this."
After coming up through the Giants system as a highly regarded power-hitting first baseman, Niekro hit 12 home runs during his 2005 rookie season. But he struggled in 2006, and things got much worse in October of that year, when a brain aneurysm claimed his father's life.
"After my dad passed away, I can't pinpoint what went wrong," he said. "But I know I wasn't having fun playing."
When he was released by the Astros after playing just 17 games for Triple-A Round Rock this past season, Niekro immediately thought about making an attempt to return as a knuckleball pitcher. Instead, he cleared his head for a few months before committing himself to this endeavor, with the help of his uncle.
"I'm excited about this because I can see that he's excited about it," Phil Niekro said. "He's got his head on straight and he's committed to doing this."
During this week's visit, the Hall of Fame uncle gave his nephew a few mechanical tips and provided the reminder that a knuckleballer has to be capable of doing more than simply throw a knuckleball.
When the elder Niekro returns to Florida in early January, there will be more instruction and a few more opportunities for the nephew and uncle to enjoy some afternoons fishing together.
"It's the best of both worlds," Niekro said. "Not only do I have the opportunity to learn from one of the best knuckleballers of all-time, but I also get to spend time with my uncle."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.