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Recalling the lessons a superstar taught me

Headlines are attention grabbers, and this one stopped me in my tracks last weekend.

Hall of Fame Atlanta Braves pitcher Phil Niekro died at the age of 81.

The headline took me back to the roots of my career in eastern Ohio, and, specifically, the little sleepy community of Blaine.

Located on the old National Road that at one day, centuries ago, was the main stagecoach route from the eastern seaboard to the wild west, when I lived back in those parts, it was a tired — very tired — old coal town with a dirty creek running through it, a rough set of railroad tracks that rattled my car every time I drove over the crossing, and a well-used but very tired ball field.

What made Blaine interesting, however, was that it was home of the Niekro brothers — Phil and brother Joe — both Major League baseball pitchers who enjoyed success over their careers. The brothers’ parents still lived in the home where the brothers grew up and, on my way to and from work each day, often, as I passed by their home, I would see their father out on the front porch, rocking away in his favorite chair.

As I said, the creek that ran through the community was stained from the coal runoffs over the years, but there still must have been something special in the water there. Phil Niekro pitched through age 48, an unheard-of old age in any professional sport. His brother pitched for 22 years, again no small feat for a professional athlete. And the two went to the same high school as Boston Celtics basketball legend John Havlicek, who Phil knew quite well.

How good were the Niekro brothers?

Well, between them, they won 539 professional baseball games, the most combined wins by brothers in baseball’s history. Phil’s 121 victories after the age of 40 is another MLB record. And, in 1979, the brothers were co-leaders in pitching victories in the National League, as they each earned 21 wins for their respective teams at the time.

Having lived and worked for 10 years back in the Ohio Valley, I grew to become a fan of the Niekros.

While Joe was more a conventional pitcher who sometimes mixed in a knuckler or two, Phil made his living on the forkball, or knuckler — an extremely unconventional pitch that drove batters and catchers crazy, as the ball would leave the hand of the pitcher heading in one direction but, by the time it crossed the plate, would have moved back and forth what must have seemed like 100 times.

“Trying to hit Phil Niekro is like trying to eat Jell-O with chopsticks,” once said Bobby Murcer, a New York Yankees superstar.

Phil always made time for the local newspaper, and I was envious of the relationship the sports reporters at The Intelligencer had with Phil, who always stopped by for an interview anytime he was back visiting his parents.

Part of my sports card collection I treasure most today are the cards I started collecting of Phil and his brother back then. And, with careers that spanned that many years in MLB, that is a lot of cards.

News of Phil’s passing made me nostalgic.

Rob Manfred, MLB commissioner, probably summed Neikro best when he told ESPN for a story this week that “even more than his signature pitch and trademark durability, Phil will be remembered as one of our game’s most genial people. He always represented his sport extraordinarily well, and he will be deeply missed.”

Phil Neikro was a sports star who considered himself just “another guy.”

I admired that about him.

His life is a lesson many other superstars could learn from.

Bill Speer can be reached at 989-354-3111, ext. 311, or bspeer@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @billspeer13.

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