Chris Jaffe recounts Phil Niekro’s finest moment as a Brave: 10/1/82. I know I’ll never forget it.
Despite a stretch in which they lost 19 of 21, the Braves entered the season’s final weekend leading the Giants and Dodgers by one game. The lead seemed a little bigger with Knucksie on the mound.
Teams with 43-year-old aces typically don’t make the playoffs. But Niekro was more than an ace — he was the only pitcher you could depend on in a rotation populated by the likes of Bob Walk and Ricks Mahler and Camp.
Though he rarely pitched in games that mattered during his Braves career, Knucksie shined in the few that did. In 1969, when the Braves won their first division title, he started and won three of the team’s final seven regular season games.
Thirteen years later, with one week left to play, Knucksie took the mound in Candlestick Park to face the Giants, who were tied with Atlanta, one game behind the Dodgers. Nine innings, no runs and two hits later, the Braves were tied for first.
On 10/1/82, Niekro, pitching on three days rest, hurled another complete game shutout while slugging his first homer in 6 years. In cavernous Jack Murphy Stadium, no less. With 1 out in the 8th inning of a 1-0 game. Three runs were more than enough for Knucksie, who walked none and allowed just three hits, retiring 17 consecutive batters at one point.
Altogether Niekro recorded five wins, two shutouts and no losses in five of the team’s biggest games up to that point.
Knucksie added four more shutout innings in Game 1 of the ’82 NLCS before the game was called due to rain. Three nights later, the greatest knuckleballer of them all wasn’t at his best but left the game after six innings up 3-2. Unfortunately, Gene Garber couldn’t hold the lead, giving up a game-winning single in the bottom of the 9th to (!*#&) Ken Oberkfell.
Exactly one year to the date after that playoff defeat, Knucksie was released by the Braves. I cried like hell when the TV cameras showed him cleaning out his locker. I was just 13 and had grown up in an era when No. 35 was the only Brave that mattered.
He may not be the greatest Brave, but it’s easy to see why, for many, he’s the most beloved.