Niekro, 53, dusts off his knuckleball


ATLANTA -- It's been five years since Phil Niekro threw his knuckleball in anger at an opposing batter, if throwing a pitch that barely breaks the speed limit can be done in anger.

And Niekro, summoned Monday from 3,000 miles away to show the Atlanta Braves that they could hit a knuckler, wasn't about to give the Braves anything tricky, as they prepared to face Pittsburgh Pirates knuckleballer Tim Wakefield in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series last night.

"I told them [Braves hitters] to be as patient as they can," said Niekro, who said he was especially impressed with Wakefield's control. "You can't throw all of them the same way. Some of them are going to be unhitable, but some are going to be very hitable."

Niekro, who won 318 games in his 24-season career -- 268 for the Braves -- was called by Atlanta general manager John Schuerholz at his home in Los Angeles on Monday, and asked to come back to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and throw batting practice.

"It doesn't feel strange to be here," said Niekro, 53. "It's feeling strange to throw in a manner so they [Braves hitters] can hit it. It's against my principle."

Added Niekro, who is eligible to enter the Hall of Fame next season, "I'm very confident if I wanted to, I could have gotten some guys out."

Setting the record straight

The Pirates' eight-run second inning not only took up 11 lines of type on the official score sheet, but also set or tied a host of NLCS records.

Here's the rundown:

* Their 16 total bases in the inning set an NLCS record, surpassing 11 by San Francisco against -- of all teams -- Pittsburgh on Oct. 6, 1971.

* The eight hits tied the most hits in one NLCS inning, matched by St. Louis in Game 4 of the 1985 series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Two other records from that St. Louis-Los Angeles game were either broken or tied as well.

* The eight runs allowed by Atlanta's Tom Glavine set a NLCS record for most runs given up in one inning, besting Los Angeles' Jerry Reuss, who gave up seven.

* Barry Bonds and Lloyd McClendon each got two hits, matching the two that Jack Clark and Tito Landrum got in the second

inning of Game 4 in the 1985 series, and the two hits by Jerome Walton of the Chicago Cubs on Oct. 5, 1989.

* Glavine's seven earned runs set a NLCS record, breaking the mark of six, set by Greg Harris of the San Diego Padres on Oct. 2, 1984, against the Cubs.

* The two Pirates homers, by Bonds and Jay Bell, tied a record held by nine other clubs in NLCS play, but last accomplished by the New York Mets in Game 2 against the Dodgers in 1988.

The Orioles way

If the blend of Atlanta pitching and defense and building through the farm system looks familiar to longtime Baltimore baseball fans, that's not by accident.

Schuerholz, a native of Baltimore, who graduated from Towso State, began as an assistant in the Orioles' minor-league department in 1967 and 1968.

He said many of his philosophies he learned from former Oriole general managers Frank Cashen and Harry Dalton.

"I learned about the traditional organizational operation there. Our consistency relied on our ability to scout and develop talent, much like we've done here," said Schuerholz.

Indeed, the current Atlanta organization is rich with talent, with younger players waiting to break in at the major-league level in much the way the Orioles' system was in the late 1960s and early '70s.

"If we have a team that wins two or three National Leagu pennants and we have to send a kid who may be ready back for a year, I don't have a problem with that," said Schuerholz. "I can remember sending Merv Rettenmund, Bobby Grich and Don Baylor back to the minor leagues."

Politics, Van Slyke style

Pittsburgh outfielder Andy Van Slyke is one of baseball's most interesting interviews, and his views on the world are, in a word, different.

Take Sunday's presidential debate, for instance. Van Slyke thought Ross Perot won the debate with his quick quips.

"He definitely stole the show with his one-liners, but he never had a direct answer," said Van Slyke. "He's like me: Always avoid the issue with an ad-lib."

Van Slyke said given Democratic nominee Bill Clinton's intentio to raise taxes on everyone making more than $200,000 a year, the Major League Players Association should endorse President Bush.

"Otherwise, every player is going to pay 50 percent with no write-offs," said Van Slyke.

Of course, all of Van Slyke's comments must be placed in a proper context, especially when one considers that he thinks "Animal House" was the greatest movie ever made.

"It had more social impact that any other movie," Van Slyke said.

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