He'd Rather Hit Knuckleballs Pitching is in his blood, but Florida Southern's Lance Niekro is making his name at the plate

April 16, 2000

Logically speaking, there are only so many questions one can ask
about the knuckleball. Illogically speaking, there are trillions.

How does the knuckleball work? How do you hold the knuckleball?
Do you know where the knuckleball is going? Who's the Zen master
of the knuckleball? Since you hold a knuckleball with your
fingertips, why isn't it called the fingertipball? Does the
knuckleball have rotation? Does the knuckleball have feelings?
Why did the knuckleball cross the road?

Meet Lance Niekro. He is the 21-year-old son of knuckleballer Joe
Niekro (and a nephew of Hall of Fame knuckleballer Phil Niekro).
He is clean-cut, polite and polished, but he is also
excruciatingly tired of answering questions concerning the
knuckleball. So to make this easier and get the obvious questions
out of the way:

Does Lance Niekro throw a knuckleball?

Yup.

Is it good?

Yup. "I believe that if Lance focused just on being a knuckleball
pitcher," says Chuck Anderson, the baseball coach at Florida
Southern, where Niekro is a redshirt sophomore, "he'd stand a
very good shot of going far in professional baseball."

How did he learn the knuckleball?

"When I was young, my dad taught it to me," says Lance. "I've
messed around with it on my own since then."

How often does he use it in games?

Never.

Niekro is not now and, in all likelihood, never will be a
pitcher. He is a third baseman, perhaps the nation's best,
despite playing for a Division II school in front of crowds that
rarely exceed a few hundred. Through Sunday he was batting .365,
with three home runs (Henley Field, the team's home park, has the
improbable dimensions of 340 feet down the leftfield line, 420 to
straightaway center and 330 down the rightfield line, hardly a
slugger's dream), 40 RBIs and only seven strikeouts in 41 games
for the 32-10 Moccasins, who are ranked seventh in Division II.

Back at George Jenkins High in Lakeland, Fla., Niekro pitched,
but only during his freshman and sophomore seasons. He threw a
Grade-A knuckleball ("I used it almost all the time," he says), a
mid-80s fastball and a so-so changeup. "Around Lance's junior
year we decided he'd be better off concentrating on being a
full-time position guy," says Joe Niekro, who won 221 games
(including 20 twice) over 22 seasons with seven major league
teams. "He throws a really nice knuckler, but Lance is a hitter.
It comes very naturally to him."

The sky is an orange-blue at Henley Field about 45 minutes before
a game last month against Army. Joe Niekro, wearing the
white-with-red-pinstripes uniform of the Moccasins, paces back
and forth--watching Lance take BP, going over to talk to Anderson,
then returning to BP. He is in his first year as the team's
pitching and first base coach, a gig that shouldn't last too
long, assuming Lance, as expected, is an early selection in the
June amateur draft. When Lance leaves Florida Southern, Joe will
probably go too.

The father and son are an interesting combo. Joe and Nancy Niekro
divorced 12 years ago, and while Lance lived with his mother, his
Little League coach was usually his dad. The two ballplayers have
fished and golfed together for years. They call each other best
friends. There is no yelling, no voice-raising, no "Aw, Pops!"
When Lance was eight, he and Joe began taking daily BP. "I'd
throw him a hundred balls every day," says Joe. "He couldn't get
enough."

This was around the time that Joe was finishing his career, with
the Minnesota Twins, winning a World Series title in 1987. Lance
doesn't remember much of his father's prime 11 years (1975-85)
with the Houston Astros, but he giddily speaks of wrestling in
the Twins' clubhouse with Kirby Puckett, working as a part-time
batboy, sprinting onto the Metrodome turf after the final out of
the Series, having the champagne rubbed through his hair.

"You're a little kid, so you don't know how to appreciate
things," says Lance, "but I look back, and how could I have had a
better childhood? I was pals with Kirby Puckett!"

Perhaps that Series would've been Lance's defining moment, had
the weird gods of baseball not messed with his life. He starred
at George Jenkins High, batting .544 with 10 home runs and 43
RBIs as a senior in 1997, but the major colleges ignored him.
Word had gotten out that he was going pro no matter what, but
when the Philadelphia Phillies selected him in the 13th round, he
was underwhelmed by the team's offer, and suddenly he longed for
Florida State or Miami to wave some scholarship dough his way.
"Nobody offered," Niekro says. "I would've loved to play for
Florida State."

He decided to ditch the Phillies anyway and, rather than walk on
at a Division I power, enrolled in Florida Community College in
Jacksonville, where he spent three of the most insignificant
weeks of his life. "I got there, and I knew it was wrong," he
says. "Nothing specific--just not for me."

The idea, at least at the time, had been to play one year of
juco ball and then reenter the draft. Instead, Niekro reversed
himself again and looked toward Florida Southern. "On a Friday
night I got a call from Lance's mom saying he was dropping out
of school," recalls Anderson. "Two days later I come home, and
there's a message on my machine saying Lance has enrolled, and
he'll be in class on Monday. I'd known about Lance Niekro since
he was six. I just never thought I'd get him."

Niekro sat out that season under transfer rules and then, last
year, hit .368 with eight home runs and 44 RBIs as a freshman.
His true coming out happened last summer, however, when he tore
up the vaunted Cape Cod League, leading all players in home runs
and RBIs while placing second in batting average with .360.
Niekro's Cape manager, Don Norris, had never heard of him before
the season. "But suddenly," Norris said last summer, "he's the
best player in the league." He was also the first Division II
representative to win the Cape MVP since Eckerd's Steve Balboni
22 years earlier.

That was hardly Niekro's summer highlight. In a late-season
extra-inning game Norris, void of arms, summoned Niekro to the
mound. Coolly, Niekro collected three outs for the save. His
first pitch hit his catcher, Georgia Tech's Brian Price, in the
face mask. It was, of course, a knuckleball.

COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON

When Lance was eight, he and Joe took daily BP. "I'd throw him
100 balls," says Joe. "He couldn't get enough."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)