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Sports Then and Now




Joe Niekro: Daddy’s Little Girl Knuckles Up for Aneurysm Research

Posted on August 30, 2009 by Todd Civin
Joe and Natalie Niekro

Joe and Natalie Niekro

It’s funny how life sometimes brings you down a path you didn’t plan to walk down. You welcome its existence and take the first step with a slight sense of trepidation.

You assume you know where you are headed but often times have no idea what is in store. You walk slowly and instead of finding what you hoped to find, you find something far more magnificent.
It’s what keeps life interesting and makes you realize that things happen for a reason and that you are exactly where God expects you to be.
I came upon a story about the First Annual Knuckle Ball while doing a piece with former major league catcher Ed Herrmann. I assumed that I was being given an extra little nugget as a reward for doing a story about Herrmann’s Charity Golf Tournament.
Herrmann was one of the guests at the gala event created by Natalie Niekro, the daughter of the late, great knuckle ball pitcher Joe Niekro. The younger half of the famed knuckleballing family (Phil, Joe and now Joe’s son Lance) died unexpectedly of a brain aneurysm on October of 2006.
His daughter Natalie formed The Joe Niekro Foundation as a way of keeping her dad alive and to aid in the research and treatment of aneurysm patients and families. The Foundation’s goal is to raise awareness about aneurysm factors, causes, treatments, and research.
I decided to call Natalie and ask her about the success of the event and perhaps direct someone to the Foundation’s site. After all, even though she wasn’t a baseball great, she is the daughter of one, and that’s almost just as good.
I dialed the phone nervously, unsure if it was because I was about to talk to the daughter of one of baseball’s great pitchers or because I sensed that my inner self was about to change.
She answered; I introduced myself and told her the nature of my call.
In an instant, the tone of Natalie Niekro’s voice changed from VP of Marketing and Advertising Professional to the voice of a little girl, who hurt very badly inside after losing her hero, her mentor, her friend.

Joe Niekro won 221 games during 22 Major League season.

Joe Niekro won 221 games during 22 Major League season.

She opened up immediately and shared stories about her father and what he meant to her through out her life. Tears streamed down Natalie’s face and her voice cracked frequently, as she spoke of her hero. A hero that she loved and idolized from the moment she was old enough to know how great a daddy is.
She spoke of Joe as a role model and as a caring and empathetic human being, who was so much more than just the face on the baseball card that we all collected as kids and how awestruck she was by the support and commitment that those in attendance showed her father and her family.
Natalie’s blog reads as follows, written four days after the July 31 event: “I was absolutely amazed and humbled at the level of support and dedication of everyone that had come to pay tribute to the man that I have the privilege of calling my father.”
“There is no other place that I would have rather been than in that stadium honoring the man that will forever be a hero in my eyes. And as I recalculate all the events that took place these past few days, I am so thankful and so honored for everyone’s support.”
We talked for about an hour or more not about the Knuckle Ball, but about what she and the Foundation are trying to do to prevent other little girls from losing their dads or moms.
Perhaps more than anything we talked about the little girl who still misses her dad very badly even though over three years have past since he went away.
I suddenly realized that the story I needed to tell was not one about the Baseball’s Who’s Who that attended the event or even about the Foundation’s goals and commitment to aiding in the research and treatment of aneurysm patients and families.
It’s about the little girl with the baseball dad and how she thinks about him every day.
So, before I shut off the computer and go hug my own mom and dad, I leave you with the words of Natalie Niekro and ask you to visit the Joe Niekro Foundation for her and her for dad.
IT HAPPENS EVERY SPRING
Written by: Natalie Niekro at age 7
Spring Training is here and baseball is starting,
which means that my Dad and I will be parting.
His baseball career is his dream-come-true
But the time we’re apart makes me so sad and blue.
Though Winter’s a memory and flowers now bloom,
I find that my heart is filled with some gloom.
While others are planning their parties and things
I only can think of what Spring to me brings.
Our time together was great but now it must end
For the Astros have called on my very best friend.
Dad’s a wonderful pitcher…three strikes and you’re out
I sit by the television and cheer and shout.
He loves his job and I’m thankful for that
Though my heart skips a beat with every crack of the bat.
So once again I’ll adjust to being without him,
Although every second I’ll be thinking about him.
I LOVE YOU, DAD

Todd Civin is a freelance writer who is the newest edition to the Sports Then and Now team. He also writes for The Bleacher Report and Seamheads. He is also a supporter of, “A Glove of Their Own” the award winning children’s story that teaches paying it forward through baseball. The Joe Niekro Foundation is the most recent non-profit organization to join the A Glove of Their Own team and will earn $3.00 from each sale of the book purchased using the donor code JNF636 Joe Niekro Foundation.


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