Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Niekro brothers coach women's baseball team

Knuckling under in the Rockies Phil and Joe Niekro on
target with Silver Bullets
Author(s):    Joe Bush Daily Herald Sports Writer
Date: August 1, 1995
Page: 1
Section: Sports
Enough is enough, Phil Niekro yelled at the 24 women sitting in a dugout in Norfolk, Va. earlier this summer. No more breaks, no more kid gloves. Regardless of the fact the Colorado Silver Bullets were learning a sport in many ways vastly different from the comforts of softball, there was no excuse for their recent play.

Bass-ackwards was what the 54-year-old Niekro called his team's performances, and if that's the way it wanted to play, he fumed, then maybe that's the way it should dress.

There was tension, alright.

The Silver Bullets, who played at Elfstrom Stadium in Geneva last Friday, hadn't seen their manager like this before - and Niekro let it build.

Until his pitching coach - younger brother Joe - strolled out of the tunnel.

"He comes out and his uniform's totally backwards, helmet and everything," says Silver Bullets outfielder Angie Marzetta. "Pants turned around, shirt turned around, shoes turned around."

The prank had Joe written all over it, but it needed a good set-up man, and if you ask the Niekros, there is no better accomplice than each other.

Their roles as caretakers of the two-year experiment that is the Colorado Silver Bullets - the only professional women's baseball team in the country - has brought them closer in proximity than they'd been since their days fishing, hunting and playing ball as kids in Ohio.

They have always been inseparable, no matter the mileage between them during their major-league careers of 24 (Phil) and 22 (Joe) years, during which they won more games (539) than any other major-league brother pitching duo.

Since signing on with the Silver Bullets in the winter of 1993-94, the pair have caught up on a relationship Phil calls "absolutely as close as two brothers could ever be."

"We go fishing together, play golf together - just being together," says Joe, who retired in 1988 after 221 wins, 204 losses and a World Series championship ring he won with Minnesota in 1987 and wears on his right hand today. "He'll call me or I'll call him, we'll have dinner together, which we couldn't do when we were playing for 20 years.

"Sitting here side by side, watching him make moves. Talking about should we bunt, should we hit and run, who's ready in the bullpen, how do you think she's throwing. Just being close. That's something we wanted to do in baseball was play together, but we never got a chance to do. (In fact, they played together twice - with the Atlanta Braves in 1973 and 1974, and with the Yankees for a part of the 1985 season.) Now that he lives in Atlanta and I live in Florida, we're still apart but still close together.

"I had two idols in my life that were men, and that was my dad and my brother. My dad (Phil, Sr.) passed away in 1988. A lot of people ask me how it is to walk in Phil's shadow. I say there ain't no better shadow to walk in."

Phil's shade is indeed cool: 318 wins, 45 shutouts, 3,342 strikeouts, a 3.35 ERA in 5,403 innings, five Gold Gloves, five All-Star games and a reputation as the game's finest knuckleball pitcher.

"Knucksie" is what his brother calls him and it's what his Silver Bullets call him.

* * *

When he took the job in December of 1993, Knucksie knew he could teach women baseball, especially women dead-set on showing the world there was nothing soft about them playing ball.

He just wasn't sure how to tell a woman she didn't make the team, couldn't play tonight, wasn't doing as well as he knew she could. In short, he was insulting them.

"A couple times last year I remember saying to him, 'Look, I came here to play your game,' " says second-year infielder Stacy Sunny. "I just feel like sometimes he didn't really let go and manage the game he could because he really cared about how people felt. Last year he would play people in their hometown, things of that sort. This year he's not doing that.

"He's kinda changed his attitude a little bit and realizes that we are here to play ball and we don't wanna be babied. We wanna play like professional ballplayers."

It is that quality above all which has endeared the women to the brothers. They miss the action of the major leagues and the clubhouse banter, but not much else. The simple joy and love for the game the Silver Bullets have shown is a stark daily contrast to major league baseball's woes, as the team showed in its recent trip to Kane County's Elfstrom Stadium.

"I don't think the game is the game it used to be," Phil says. "It's really come down to business, and it bothers me. There's a lot of things in baseball that bother me. It's not so much what's in the best interest of baseball, it's the best interests of a particular owner. There's guys in baseball that shouldn't be playing right now, as far as I'm concerned."

Joe is just as free with his disappointment, especially with the recent strike.

"Me being a former player, it (hacked) me off," Joe says. "It really did. When we went on strike (for 10 weeks in 1981) it was a little different because the money wasn't there, and it got it up to a certain level.

"It was nice these guys went on strike, to back up what we did, but I think it could have been handled in a different way. It should have been taken care of a long time ago."

* * *

There are no such concerns as the Silver Bullets move from town to town during their 48-game 1995 schedule.

The travel is wearying, especially because the team has no home field. But just when the road rust, the losses (23 in 30 games thus far this season) and the inevitable chauvinist idiot threaten to turn the game into a chore, the brothers are at their best.

"They're hilarious," says pitcher Missy Coombes.

"They make playing here fun," Marzetta says. "This is a humble first step for women's baseball, and sometimes you're gonna have a lot of hard times. They're always making light of the situation. There's a lot more to these guys than the baseball part."

There seems no time for dull moments what with Yogi Berra-type sayings the women have dubbed Knucksie-isms - "Bed check's at midnight. Your bed better be there" - pranks like the one in Norfolk and high-stakes trivia games.

"Who hit the first home run off Joe?" Marzetta asks. "Pete Rose."

Though Phil says the only difference between he and Joe is the five years in age, and Joe says the sole difference is that Phil is the manager and he the pitching coach, it's clear Joe is the instigator of most mischief.

"Joe is more outgoing," Sunny says. "Joe has a joke for everything and Phil does too, but Phil's very quiet and just sits back and watches things, then he'll jump in with something kinda funny."

There's obvious affection among the brothers and the players. Phil has said coaching the team is like having 24 daughters, and Joe, who has a 21-year-old daughter, agrees.

When he relates the first time he saw the players dressed up, it sounds an awful lot like a father's reaction to his daughter's pre-prom appearance in the living room.

"We had a big dinner in New York last year and went to this Italian restaurant," Joe says. "Me and Phil looked at each other and said 'Is this the same team?' They were beautiful."

* * *

In other words, Phil and Joe are tight enough to see through the same eyes.

They use the same term to describe one another - best friend - and agree these past two seasons have been the best they've spent in baseball:

Along with their players, the brothers are pioneers in the women's sports movement; the team has drastically improved on its rookie-season numbers.

This spring in Florida, the Niekros double-teamed Boston Red Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield back into prominence after a dismal 1994.

Best of all, they don't have to dial anything more than a room number to say hey to each other.

"We're absolutely as close as two brothers could ever be," Phil says. "There's just nothing that separates us. Nothing. Nothing ever has and nothing ever will."
© Copyright Daily Herald, Paddock Publications, Inc.

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