Sapakoff: Former Braves ace Phil Niekro, the ultimate non-PED Hall of Famer
Phil Niekro was on the right side of the won-loss ledger 318 times during his Hall of Fame baseball career. The former knuckleball specialist is also on the correct side of the debate that separates Cooperstown from players linked to performance-enhancing drugs.
"The guys that did it right - Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Mike Schmidt, Harmon Killebrew, Frank Robinson and guys like that - whenever I think about the PED guys I think about those guys," Niekro said by phone from his home in Flowery Branch, Ga. "I don't think it's fair to those guys that did it properly."
The debate rages among Hall of Fame voters, most of whom agree with Niekro. Former stars Roger Clemens (35.4 percent) and Barry Bonds (34.7 percent) fell far short of the necessary 75 percent in voting for the 2014 class earlier this month.
Mark McGwire (11 percent) and Sammy Sosa (7.2 percent) got less support than Jeff Kent.
It's a topic of discussion likely to come up at the Charleston RiverDogs' 10th annual Hot Stove Banquet and Auction on Jan. 31 at the Charleston Marriott, where Niekro and former Atlanta Braves catcher Javy Lopez are the headline speakers.
But Niekro, 74, is willing to talk about more than just the past. His concern is for baseball's future.
Phil Niekro's legacy
"If they start putting some PED guys into the Hall, then all the sudden these college athletes are going to say, 'Hey, I'll take my chances and have a good year and that will get me to the big leagues,'" Niekro said. "Then the college players are doing it and the high school players say, 'If it's OK in college, why can't I do it?' Then it just starts going down, and down, and down.
"There are probably college and high school players thinking they're getting away with something now, but it will catch up to them. It will."
Niekro is the ultimate non-PED Hall of Famer, a credit to the ingenuity and diligence of someone not gifted with a 95-mph fastball. His 24-year big league career - 21 of those seasons with the Braves - has roots in knuckleball knowledge developed in rural Lansing, Ohio. Niekro's father learned the unorthodox pitch from a coal miner and taught it to his sons (the late Joe Niekro won 221 games in the majors).
Phil Niekro has worked with retired knuckleball pitcher Tim Wakefield and has chatted with 2012 National League Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey, who embraced the pitch deep into his career.
But Niekro isn't surprised the knuckler remains a rarity in baseball.
"There aren't any knuckleball teachers out there," Niekro said. "No one knows about it. They won't let you throw it in college or high school. Very few minor league teams have any knuckleball instructors, so basically everyone is telling you, 'I can't help you with that knuckleball.'"
Not knuckling under
Niekro can't wait for spring training. He still serves as a Braves guest instructor. If few young pitchers can benefit from knuckleball tutelage, they all must appreciate a comprehensive preparation plan from a well-rounded player who won five Gold Gloves and showed occasional pop with the bat (seven career homers).
"I realized as a starting pitcher how many balls were going to come back at me," Niekro said. "So I had coaches hit groundballs to me until I couldn't move my arms or legs. When the hitters went into the batting cages, I went with them to work on my bunting and my hitting. I knew there were going to be a lot of guys on base when I pitched, so I worked on my pick-off moves. In the course of my career I won quite a few games by doing those things, beyond getting the ball over the plate and trying to get a guy out.
"Most pitchers just don't realize the importance of all those aspects of the game, and most of them don't work enough on it."
Once again, old-school Phil Niekro is right.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff