Niekro elated to have some company in Cooperstown

On a sultry, summer Sunday in 1997, Blaine’s own Phil Niekro stepped to a podium in Cooperstown, N.Y. and accepted baseball’s highest honor – enshrinement to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

At the time of his election, ”Knucksie” was the only enshrinee who pitched primarily for the Atlanta Braves.

Who knew it would take 17 years for that to change.

Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine will join Niekro as members of the fabled Hall this summer, both having been elected by the Baseball Writers Association of America in their first year of eligibility.

No one is more happier for the duo than Niekro, who had to wait five years for his turn at immortality.

”They’ve earned it and they deserve it,” Niekro, 74, said Thursday night from his home just outside Atlanta.

”You get that call and it’s a voice you never forget. It took me five years to get that call.

”They’ll be four of us in there now, including Henry (Hank Aaron). It won’t be so lonely there now for us.”

John Smoltz, the other part of Atlanta’s sensational pitching rotation that won the 1995 World Series and a slew of pennants and division titles in the 1990s and 2000s, is eligible to be elected next year.

Niekro is a frequent returnee to Hall of Fame Weekend. He said this year’s trip will be extra special.

”Those guys did it,” the Bridgeport High School graduate said. ”It was pitching that did it. They had good hitting and a fair defense, but the pitching was the reason they won those pennants every year.

”And Bobby Cox was there. He’s one of the greatest managers you could’ve ever played for.”

Niekro said the rotation of Maddux and Glavine, along with Smoltz, was so spectacular the likes of which might not be seen again.

”That rotation opened the eyes of baseball fans, not only in this country, but around the world,” he said. ”I’ll never say never, but they’ll never be another string of pennant winning like they had.”

From 1993-2003, Maddux’s final year with the Braves, Atlanta won for NL championships and 10 division titles.

Maddux was the anchor of the rotation. He finished his career with 355 victories, four Cy Young Awards and 18 Gold Gloves.

”He’s a pitcher I would go buy a ticket to go watch pitch,” said Niekro, who himself won 318 games and five Gold Gloves during an illustrious 24-year career. ”I have that much respect for him. He was an artist.

”You can’t say that about too many pitchers. He just knew how to pitch to every man who stepped up to the plate. He did his homework.”

When baseball fans from across the country gather in upstate New York for this year’s Hall of Fame Weekend, set for July 25-28, it will be more like an Atlanta Braves reunion. In addition to Maddux and Glavine, Cox will be inducted, along with Joe Torre, who once played and managed in Atlanta. Torre is being recognized for his work managing the New York Yankees.

”I played for Joe, played against him and played with him,” Niekro noted. ”You could put a feather in his hat as far as being a Brave … or a tomahawk or something.”

Also being inducted are former Chicago White Sox slugger Frank Thomas and Tony LaRussa, who managed Oakland and St. Louis to World Series crowns.

”They probably won’t feel the impact of this until Cooperstown is over,” Niekro said. ”What really gets you is on Sunday when you receive your plaque and make your speech to the audience. Then, you go down to the Hall and you see your plaque hanging in the Hall of Fame with all the other guys. That’s when it really, really hits you.”

Niekro hasn’t spoken with Maddux or Glavine yet. In fact, he doesn’t plan to. He has something more intimate in mind.

”I want to personally write them a letter, a personally-handwritten letter,” he said. ”It means a little more when you get something like that from someone.

”It will more of a personal touch. I’d like to do that.”

Cox, Torre and LaRussa were elected by the Expansion Era Committee. Niekro is one of eight Hall of Famers on the committee along with Rod Carew, Andrew Dawson, Carlton Fisk, Whitey Herzog, Tommy Lasorda, Paul Molitor and Frank Robinson.

Following the BBWAA’s announcement earlier this month, there was plenty of furor over how some sportswriters voted. Maddux wasn’t voted in unanimously (no one ever has), and that drew the ire of many fans.

Niekro said the process isn’t perfect, but he’s comfortable with the process as it stands.

”I think everyone will probably agree there are some guys that are in that shouldn’t be in and there are some guys that aren’t in who should probably be in,” he said. ”It will be a questionable vote every year. They just do the best they can with it.”

Another controversial part of the Hall’s voting has involved sportswriters who haven’t voted for players deemed to have taken performance enhancing drugs or PEDs. Most notably, players like Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa.

Niekro has his own thoughts on players who use PEDs.

”I think the penalties have been too weak,” he said. ”In my opinion, if you get caught the first time and you’re positive and there’s no doubt about it, it’s a one-year suspension without pay. That’s how I look at it.”

PEDs are just one of the issues Commissioner Bud Selig is working on before he’s to retire at the end of the upcoming season. Thursday, Major League Baseball announced a huge expansion of instant replay in hopes of eliminating blown calls that have had fans and players in a frenzy in recent years.

Niekro is taking a wait-and-see approach to the new rules.

”I’ll answer that when the season is over,” he said laughing when asked about the changes. ”We’ll see how it goes. We’ll know more after this year.”

Niekro is certainly keeping busy with plenty of activities. But what he enjoys most is spending time with his family, including his grandson, Chase, who is spending time getting ready for the upcoming baseball season.

Then, there are those moments on the lake near his home, trying to reel in a fish or two.

But, no matter where he is, Niekro’s thoughts aren’t far from the Ohio Valley.

”I get up there as much as I can,” he said. ”When I come down Blaine Hill and go through the tunnels in Wheeling, I’m home.”