Time Machine Fridays: When I Hit Niekro


Yes, that's me in the batter's box taking a swing against Phil Niekro at Foley Field (Photo by Troy Johnson).

Almost 15 years ago, I had my one shot at hitting off a former Major League pitcher, Phil Niekro. It was an unforgettable experience. As to how it turned out, well, that’s what Throwback Fridays are for.

Read for yourself in this column that I wrote appearing in the May 21, 1996 edition of The Athens Banner-Herald.



As a little league pitcher, I was always trying to get ahead of the game by learning new pitches.

When you are 11 years old, everyone tells you curveballs ruin your arm and, by the time you turn 16, your pitching career will be over.

I never threw curveballs until I was 15 and my pitching career promptly ended at age 16—but not because of curveballs. It had more to do with the fact that my fastball couldn’t break glass.

So, my grandfather tried to teach me a new pitch – the knuckleball. I had the hardest time learning how to throw it. He labored so long one afternoon trying to teach me the knuckler that his knuckles started bleeding.

Needless to say, I never learned to throw a knuckleball, which is probably why I’ve always admired knuckleball pitchers.

Phil Niekro is one such pitcher.

When Niekro was with the Braves, his knuckleballs danced into Bruce Benedict’s glove as batters swatted in vain. I always loved watching him pitch, wondering if it was really as hard as everyone said it was to hit the knuckleball.

Monday night I found out firsthand.

When the Colorado Silver Bullets – the only women’s professional baseball team in the nation – came to town, the team ran a “Hit against Niekro” promotion in conjunction with WNGC-FM. Morning deejay Tim Ciccarelli narrowed qualified contestants to three people, with each getting three swings against a Future Hall of Fame pitcher. A home run off Niekro, who now manages the Silver Bullets, would have meant a new car.

I somehow managed to talk the Silver Bullets promotions director into letting me hit with Ciccarelli and the three other contestants.

While I hadn’t swung against a live arm in three years, my .300 batting average from my senior year in high school gave me all the confidence I needed. Cicarelli went first and got in some good licks against Niekro, so I strode to the plate with added assurance that I would soon immortalize myself … at least in my mind.

With both my roommates and fellow sports writer Troy Johnson in attendance, I knew I couldn’t let them down.

Just before digging into the batter’s box, I pointed toward the left field wall with my heavy wooden bat, calling my shot to fulfill a dare Troy made.

Niekro just laughed and delivered the first pitch.

The knuckleball he threw darted and dipped and dashed its way toward home plate as I stood there frozen. I stared in disbelief. How could the ball do that? My physics book omitted the disclaimer that “Gravity applies in all cases, except when Niekro is throwing a knuckleball.”

I swung with all my might. I missed with all my might.

The crowd collectively chuckled, reminding me that I would certainly embarrass myself if I didn’t at least make contact.

Niekro delivered the second pitch. I don’t know if Niekro felt sorry for me and took something off the pitch, but I was able to get a piece of it – albeit a small piece.

Niekro fired the third pitch.

The ball flitted and floated like a butterfly toward home plate as I readied myself for my final crack at short-lived fame. I coiled the bat and swung.


The bat struck the ball solidly as I gazed in wide-eyed amazement.

I did it, I thought. I hit Phil Niekro’s knuckleball.

I waved to the crowd, a proud young sports writer.

As I glanced back toward the field, Niekro bent over and fielded my weak grounder.

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