Phil Niekro was considered one of the best - if not the best - knuckleball pitchers in Major League Baseball history.
It's no wonder why the Baltimore Orioles reached out to him each of the past two spring trainings. The American League O's have a pair of promising knuckleballers in their organization - Eddie Gamboa and Zach Clark - and who better to work with them than "Knucksie" himself.
"I was down there (Sarasota, Fla.) for about a week this spring," Niekro, a Bridgeport High grad, said in a telephone interview from his home in Flowery Branch, Ga., earlier this week. "Baltimore had me down there last year and asked me to come again this year."
While in Sarasota earlier this month, the 74-year-old Niekro worked exclusively with the two righthanders.
"I really like the Gamboa kid a lot,' Niekro explained. "I think he can pitch in the major leagues right now for any team."
Unfortunately for Gamboa, the Orioles sent him to Triple-A Norfolk.
"They (Baltimore) have a pretty decent starting staff," Niekro added. "He had a good spring and they really like him. He'll be back in the majors before long.
"He's got a good knuckleball, fastball, slider and change," Niekro continued. "He has great command of all four pitches."
Gamboa, a career minor leaguer, tossed a 7-inning no-hitter last season for Double-A Bowie. It came against Harrisburg in the first game of a doubleheader.
According to reports, he threw 75 percent knuckleballs.
The 6-2, 195-pounder also had a decent outing against Pittsburgh on March 10 when he went one inning in relief. He surrendered a leadoff single to Chase d'Arnaud before promptly picking him off. He then retired the next two hitters.
As for Clark, he, too, was demoted to the Orioles' minor league camp.
"Zach is just getting into it," Niekro said of throwing the knuckleball. "He had some reservations about it at first. He just needs a little more time working on it."
Being in Florida for spring training rekindled some memories for Niekro, who pitched in the 'bigs' for 23 seasons and five different organizations.
"I always liked spring training. It was always the most important part of the season, and still is," he noted. "I see a lot of guys down there that get me thinking back to my days.
"It (spring training) was a special time of year for me." Niekro admitted.
Following his work in Sarasota, Niekro headed home to Georgia, but made a stop in Kissimmee, Fla., the spring home of the Braves.
"They don't have any knuckleball pitchers, but they invite me to come down every spring," he said. "I throw a little bit of batting practice, but I'm not under contract with Atlanta."
He said the Braves are still in search of that fourth or fifth starter.
"Since (Kris) Medlen and (Brandon) Beachy went down with injuries, their rotation is all messed up," Niekro said. "Losing those two for a while has really affected their staff."
Medlen and Beachy are out for the season following Tommy John surgeries, while Mike Minor is on the DL until at least mid-April. Newly signed Ervin Santana won't be ready until the middle of April.
In hopes of bolstering that injury-plagued staff, the Braves signed veteran righthander Freddy Garcia, but he was released over the weekend after the team disclosed it wouldn't add him to its 40-player roster, which would have triggered a $1.25 million guaranteed salary.
Atlanta turned right around and signed veteran righthander Aaron Harang, who was recently released by Cleveland.
Since the major league season gets under way next week (I keep forgetting about that Sydney Series), I will give my prognostications for the upcoming season.
East: 1. Miami; 2. Washington; 3. Atlanta; 4. Philadelphia; 5. New York
Central: 1. Pittsburgh; 2. Cincinnati; 3. St. Louis; 4. Milwaukee; 5. Chicago
West: 1. Los Angeles; 2. Colorado; 3. Arizona; 4. San Francisco; 5. San Diego
East: 1. Tampa Bay; 2. Boston; 3. New York; 4. Baltimore; 5. Toronto
Central: 1. Detroit; 2. Cleveland; 3. Kansas City; 4. Chicago; 5. Minnesota
West: 1. Los Angeles; 2. Texas; 3. Oakland; 4. Seattle; 5. Houston
World Series: Los Angeles over Tampa Bay in seven games.
Everyone can dream, can't they?
North can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org