Phil Niekro inducted
WINTERSVILLE — It seems as if there shouldn’t be a hall of fame that Phil Niekro isn’t a part of.
You name them and he’s a part of it.
Major League Baseball? Check!
Bridgeport High School? Check!
Ohio Valley Athletic Conference? Check!
Number retired by the Atlanta Braves? Check!
Monday evening at St. Florian Hall, however, Niekro made yet another acceptance speech in front of family, friends and droves of baseball and Ohio Valley sports fans.
Niekro was formally inducted to the Lou Holtz Upper Ohio Valley Hall of Fame.
“This is special because it comes from this valley and my hometown,” Niekro said prior to the ceremony. “I consider Wintersville, Steubenville and everywhere in this valley, along with Bridgeport of course, as my hometown. I consider Powhatan up to East Liverpool and out to Cambridge, St. Clairsville, Bellaire, Martins Ferry, Wheeling, Triadelphia all of my home. It just feels good to be here and brings back a lot of memories.”
Niekro was in the valley all weekend. He once again hosted his annual golf scramble at Belmont Hills Country Club in St. Clairsville on Friday and then took part in all of the activities surrounding the Holtz Hall of Fame, which included a party in which Niekro was reportedly wowing folks in attendance with Las Vegas style magic tricks.
“I was able to spend three days in Lansing before coming up here, so nothing is better right now for me,” Niekro said.
One thing that’s always been true about Niekro and it was pointed out by Tony Figaretti, who presented Niekro for induction, is that he never forgot about the Ohio Valley and where he learned to throw the knuckleball, which led to him posting 316 career victories in a professional career that spanned 24 years.
“That’s why the entire tri-state area respects him as much as ever,” Figaretti said about Niekro. “He never hides from anyone and is always willing to do anything he can to help the Ohio Valley.”
It’s that mentality and more that leads Niekro to think more about his time in the Ohio Valley than simply pitching for Bridgeport High and then heading off to the professional ranks, which he signed as a free agent with the Milwaukee Braves for $500.
“I don’t just think about the athletes or the sports of this area, but I think about all of the good, wonderful people who worked in the steel mills and coal mines,” Niekro said. “Mostly everyone where I came from worked in those industries. I just enjoy sitting on the porch in Lansing, looking up at the trees and hearing the creek running in the back.”
Niekro had met Holtz a handful of times prior to this weekend’s events, but he said he’d been a fan of the former Notre Dame and South Carolina head coach since he was “probably 10 years old.”
“Anyone who knows the least amount about football knows of Lou Holtz,” Niekro said. “I am a Notre Dame fan, a Buckeye, a Mountaineer and since I live in Atlanta, I am a Georgia and Georgia Tech fan.”
Niekro was also excited to catch up and talk with keynote speaker Urban Meyer. The Ohio State Buckeyes’ head football coach, who was inducted to the Holtz Hall of Fame as the Distinguished American in 2009, actually was in the Braves’ organization at the same time as Niekro.
“We were actually teammates,” Meyer recalled. “I was at a lot lower level, but he was as respected as any player in the Braves’ organization. I love him. I’ve studied him and I love who he is. I’m a big fan.”
Niekro didn’t spend much of his induction speech talking about baseball. Instead, he spoke about his affection for the Ohio Valley and his late brother, Joe.
“My brother Joe and I were the best of friends,” Niekro said. “When you saw me, you saw Joe. We laughed together and we cried together. It didn’t matter if I didn’t see Joe for a day, five days, a week or a few months, the first thing that came out of his mouth was, ‘I love you’ and that’s the first thing I said to him, too.”
Niekro told the crowd that people don’t express their feelings and love for their family members nearly as much as they probably should.
“I think sometimes we take for granted not saying that because we may feel it,” Niekro explained. “There are 84 thousand seconds in one day and telling someone, ‘I love you’ will take about one second. So, the next time you go on a trip or away for a few days or even asleep tonight, tell the people who mean the most to you that you love them because there are no guarantees in this life.”
That love is exactly what Niekro feels about his brother, his family and the Ohio Valley. And he won’t hesitate to talk to about it, either.
Staskey can be reached at email@example.com