As I walked into the locker room, reporter’s pad and pen firmly in hand, my eyes quickly scanned this way and that, seeking out my target. In a matter of moments, it was located. There, sitting in the corner, quietly preparing himself to start that night’s game was Phil Niekro — unquestionably my favorite Major League Baseball player of all time.
In my 45 years of reporting, I have interviewed enough athletes, politicians, and celebrities to rarely become star-struck, nervous, or tongue-tied. But this was one of those moments.
As I cautiously walked toward the locker of the future Hall-of-Famer, I felt a roomful of eyes — most belonging to Niekro’s teammates and the beat reporters who regularly covered the Atlanta Braves — follow my every move as I crept toward my target. I wasn’t exactly sure why, but later it would be revealed.
The date of this long-awaited (at least to a then 24-year-old it seemed like a long time) opportunity to interview one of my very first sports heroes was July 20, 1983. But my relationship with Niekro had begun several years earlier, whether he knew it or not.
On July 7, 1972 at the age of 14 I traveled from Louisville, Miss. to my birthplace of Atlanta with one thing in mind — attending my first-ever Major League Baseball game. That’s a story I will tell in much more detail in a later column.
Niekro didn’t pitch in either game of the doubleheader, but my seat in the right field stands was just a few rows from the Atlanta Braves bullpen. And sometime during the six-plus hours we were at Atlanta Fulton-County Stadium that night, Niekro got up in the bullpen to get in a little work. I hung over the rail, enraptured by every movement he made, eyeing him toss the 25 to 30 pitches he likely threw that night, as though watching Picasso himself painting at his easel.
Six years and two months later I would finally get a chance to see Niekro pitch in a game. The Little League baseball team in Louisville that I coached, the Eagles, had won the championship that year and the parents took us to Atlanta to watch the Braves as part of the celebration. As a 19-year-old coach I sat with my 9-10-year-old players and their parents and families and watched as Niekro came in out of the bullpen to pitch two-and-a third innings, striking out four and earning the save in a 9-6 Braves win over the Montreal Expos.
Now, let’s take a quick look into the future — at least in relation to the interview with Niekro I was about to conduct.
When it became evident that 1987 would be the last of Niekro’s illustrious career, I began figuring a way to go watch him pitch at least one more time. You see, to my recollection, despite the fact that Niekro went on to win 318 games in his career, I had never seen him earn a win in person.
After carefully studying the pitching rotations and the schedule of the Cleveland Indians, who Niekro then pitched for, my new bride of just four months, Barbara, our son Ryan and nephew Brian bought our tickets and drove to Kansas City to watch my personal legend pitch one last time.
It just so happened to be July 20, 1987, exactly four years after my one-and-only interview with Niekro.
On that night Niekro didn’t have his best stuff but managed to leave the game after five innings with the lead. The Indians managed to hold on to win the game 9-5.
Let’s back up four years and go back to where this story started.
I was in my second stint as a sportswriter for the Vicksburg Evening post, where I worked for sports editor Steve Swogetinsky, who eventually would be best man at Barb and I’s wedding. He knew I was going to Atlanta to watch the Braves and arranged to get me a press pass and four complimentary tickets behind home plate, three of which I shared with my cousins Billy and Tommy Anderson and their friend Jose.
I had several players on my list to interview, including my second favorite all-time Brave Dale Murphy, but Niekro topped the list.
Having never covered an MLB game, I went to the press box and quickly learned the ropes, which among those was that the locker room was open to the media before the game.
So here I am walking slowly toward one of the greatest professional pitchers of all-time, pondering my list of questions, with what seemed like a roomful of people watching my every move.
I found it odd that reporters seemed to be gathered around all of the players, other than Niekro. That didn’t even make sense to me. But I made my move and found myself standing before the object of my journey, who was quietly sitting at his locker.
I asked if I could ask a few questions. He quickly glanced around and said “sure.” I then conducted a three-or-four-minute interview and then merrily went about my business interviewing other players, having already realized my ultimate goal.
It was about 10 minutes later while interviewing reserve infielder/outfielder Mike Jorgenson that I finally realized what had just taken place.
He answered my questions and then took a look at me standing there with the physical appearance of a 15-year-old, and nicely asked, “You haven’t done this much, have you?” I sheepishly answered that I really hadn’t. He then told me one important rule about pregame interviews I didn’t know until that precise moment — you never, ever interview the starting pitcher before he pitches on game day, especially the likes of Phil Niekro. It’s considered bad luck and they usually won’t answer.
On that day Phil Niekro moved from just being a baseball legend in my mind, but to one as a person as well. He had never seen me before and would likely never see me again. He was 44 years old and one of the greatest players in the history of the Braves. He didn’t have to give me the time of day, yet he patiently answered all of my questions without hesitation.
That’s another one of the many lessons I have learned in life about how to treat people, especially those who are navigating new arenas in their lives.
Oh, by the way, that win Niekro picked up by pitching for the Indians against the Royals exactly four years later in the presence of my new family would be his last — EVER. That’s something I will never forget.
Some may wonder whether or not Niekro deserved to be in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame when he was elected in 1997, but he entered mine in the summer of 1983.
Austin Bishop, AKA The Old Sports Dude, has been covering high school, college, amateur and professional sports since 1975. He will be retiring from the journalism business at the conclusion of 2021. He is currently pastor of Great Commission Assembly of God in Philadelphia, Miss. He may be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.