“Got a beat-up glove, a home-made bat…”
Dateline: Opening Day #143
“You always get a special kick on opening day, no matter how many you go through. You look forward to it like a birthday party when you're a kid. You think something wonderful is going to happen.”
- Joe DiMaggio
It was Saturday, April 22, 1876, weather records show it to be a “fair” day in Philadelphia, Penn. Newspaper records are sketchy, but sometime between 1 and 2 p.m. that day the very first pitch of the new National League was thrown.
And so began Opening Day of baseball in America.
Fitting it was to have occurred in the same city where only 100 years before the Declaration of Independence was signed, our original Opening Day.
Some 3,000 fans came to the Jefferson Street Grounds to watch the hometown Philadelphia Athletics take on the Boston Red Caps. Philly lost 6-5 and finished the year with a 14 wins and 45 losses.
They’ve improved a bunch since then.
The last game to take place on that field was in 1890, this photo shows that area in Philadelphia right now. There is an athletic recreation center on the site, but baseball historians say that northwest baseball diamond (arrow) is pretty much on the site of the first National League Baseball diamond.
If I were a Philly guy I’d walk those bases today.
Welcome to Opening Day.
As a child, a very young child, baseball was the only game I knew mainly because of this man, my Uncle Sib, Sibby Sisti who played in “the bigs” for the Boston Braves and the Milwaukee Braves.
The first baseball, the first baseball mitt I ever got came from Sib. My father told me, “I think you were 1 year old, actually just barely 1 when he gave it to you, maybe younger.”
Whenever I came into town for an ESPN story I’d stop by to see him and his wife, my Aunt Noreen. On one trip he gave this photo to me to give to my son, Jimmy. I remember the look on his face when I told him Jimmy was 12 years old. “Jezze, Donnie (I was 48 but still Donnie) maybe I’m too late…”
“Too late” meaning that he didn’t get to Jimmy when he was a year old and feared that, because of that, Jimmy might have become a New York Yankee fan before Uncle Sib could get to him and lead him away from that, um, mistake.
As a kid growing up I was a Braves fan even though Uncle Sib retired in 1954 when I was 2 years old. But he stayed in baseball as manager of the Buffalo Bisons (minor league team in Buffalo) and as the Pittsburgh “skipper” in the movie The Natural with Robert Redford.
“Hey Donnie, did you see the game last night?” The “game” was always a Braves game and throughout the baseball season I’d get several calls like that at my desk at ESPN from Uncle Sib. Even if I did happen to see it, or catch the highlights, he’d give me a “Sib-lights” of what happened according to Sibby, which sometimes didn’t seem to match up to, you know, actuality.
Once a Braves, always a Braves, no matter the town name in front.
“…and a brand new pair of shoes…”
“Hitting Niekro's knuckleball is like eating soup with a fork."
- Richie Hebner
(MLB 3rd baseman - Pirates and others)
Fast forward a few decades. I’m at the Bassmaster Elite gig on Lake Lanier in Georgia, got invited to a lunch which I wasn’t buying, an absolute road win. I sat down at a pizza joint table, knew everyone at the table except the guy next to me wearing an Atlanta Braves hat, but I didn’t think much of it since you could basically hear Atlanta from where I was sitting.
My buddy Tom Branch: “Hey db, I’d like you to meet a friend of mine…” to which the guy in the Braves hat reached out his hand to shake mine, “… Phil Niekro.”
Have you ever had that moment when your brain goes “whoa” but your mouth is sort of several clicks behind it. “Hi, nice to meet you,” I say as I shake his hand and return to looking at the menu.
Brain to db: “Whoa … whoa, whoa dummy ...”
And then it connects Braves ... Braves dummy ... and I look over to him and say exactly this, “Um, are you the Phil Niekro?”
To which he just smiled:
O M G!
I am sitting next to “Knucksie." Of all the sports things I’ve done in my life, this one would make Uncle Sib possibly the proudest.
For those of you who weren’t lucky enough to grow up as a various Braves dude/dudette let me explain:
Phil Niekro, of the roughly 17,000 men to play in “the bigs” only nine have played longer than the guy sitting next to me. Twenty-four years in the majors, 864 games, 5,404 innings pitched, 716 games started, 3,343 strikeouts, five-time Golden Glove, and a no-hitter in 1973 vs. Padres.
Phil, Mr. Niekro I mean, played in 121 games after he was 40 years old. His 318 career wins are the most by a knuckleball pitcher and ranks him 16th overall. (Yeah, Uncle Sib, I paid attention.)
And coolest, National Baseball Hall of Fame Inductee 1997.
Possibly second coolest, “You know Don, I fish for bass.”
“…you know I think it's time to give this game a ride…”
“The way to catch a knuckleball is to wait until the ball stops rolling and then to pick it up.”
- Bob Uecker
(former MLB Catcher)
Needless to say, when you have the opportunity, you seize it, and so I did. We set it up to do an interview the next morning at my buddy, Nick Nichols, body shop. That’s Nick's wife standing next to Phil, and believe it or not the first MLB game she ever went to was Phil’s no-hitter.
Laura: “I thought it was kind of boring,” she said standing next to the guy who threw it, but who also laughed about it.
Phil: “db to be honest with you, I had no idea I had a no-hitter going on. I went into the dugout and sat down and no one would sit next to me. I thought, ‘you know I took a shower this morning I don’t think I stink,’ but it wasn’t me stinky, it was just bad luck to sit near me I think.”
The next time he took to the field he looked up and saw the scoreboard, “I thought 'Holy Moly!' when I saw it.”
“You know I’m just a blue collar kind of guy, grew up in Ohio near the West Virginia border, grew up around coal miners, my father was a coal miner, he played ball in the minors, learned from a teammate how to throw the knuckleball, and he’s the one who taught me and my brother Joe how to throw it.”
In 1959 he signed a baseball contract “for $275 a year with a $500 bonus, you know my goal was to get in the big leagues and pitch. I was just hoping they would let me pitch.”
“…just to hit the ball…”
"Throwing a knuckleball for a strike is like throwing a butterfly with hiccups across the street into your neighbor's mailbox."
- Willie Stargell
I’ve had a lot of amazing experiences with professional athletes, none though like what happened next with “knucksies.”
We are sitting in Nick’s office and we are talking about “knuckle balls” when Phil gets up out of his seat and reaches into Nick’s bookcase and grabs a baseball and then stands next to me and proceeds to teach me how to throw “the knuckler.”
“Normally the batter can see the spin on the ball, if they see it rotating this way (and he turns the baseball in his hand) they know it’s a curve, this way (he turns it the other way) it’s a slider, a knuckleball though, hell when I let go of it even I didn’t know where it was going to go.”
Phil is once again sitting across from me, but he is still spinning the baseball in his hands. “Billy Buckner, you know he always seemed to have found a way to hit it. So did Stargell, one time though Rick Monday was coming up to bat and told me just not to laugh at him when he struck out.”
“You know db, on a good day with a stiff wind behind me I could maybe, maybe throw 60 to 70 mile per hour, but I always took to the mound thinking a great, great hitter maybe hits .300 or .350, so that means they only manage to hit the ball a third of the time. I figured the odds were pretty much in my favor.”
Phil's on the mound look.
Phil's look with me.
Phil left his truck to be fixed at Nick’s, so I offered to drive him home which was just a few miles away. “Turn right here db on Phil Niekro Parkway,” which was very cool to have been driving on the parkway named after the guy sitting next to me.
“I’ve lived on Lake Lanier here a long time with my wife Nancy, we’ve been married 53 years now. I love it here, I get to walk down to my dock and catch bass right here in our cove.”
When they built the house, over the front door they placed a custom made large etched glass baseball, “At night went it lights up the stitches turn red just like on a real baseball.”
What I came away with on this morning with Phil Niekro, a couple of things, first his blue collar, workman like work ethic. “I pitched every four days, eight and a third innings sometimes 9 innings, if I still had my knuckleball working, I’d still be pitching now at almost 80 years old.”
I believe he would.
And then what he left me with, one simple sentence, a simple saying that should be printed out and hung in every locker room, this: “It’s not what you did, it’s all about what you are going to do.”
Amen to that there.
“…and touch 'em all, a moment in the sun…”
“Pitching is 80 percent of the game and the other half is hitting and fielding.”
- Mickey Rivers
“The baseball mania has run its course. It has no future as a professional endeavor.”
- Cincinnati Gazette editorial, 1879
It is today, Opening Day number 143.
A season, new.
It is Christmas for those in the bleacher seats.
Popcorn and peanuts, balls and strikes, pomp and circumstance.
It’s a day of renewal, it’s a day that from above I know Uncle Sib smiles down on his family, my family and all those fans of “them Braves.”
And back in Philadelphia today if you stand on that ball field near-abouts that one where the first Opening Day was played some 143 years ago, if it is a “fair day,” and the wind is calm. Rumor has it that at 1:05 p.m., every year ‘bout this time if you happen to be standing a foot or so back of home plate, and if you listen real close, real close you may hear whispered …
“… play ball.”
For it is, thankfully, Opening Day.
“…it's-a gone and you can tell that one good-bye.”