Niekro carries on family tradition with the Mississippi Braves

Published 4:00 am Sunday, April 7, 2024

PEARL — When the Mississippi Braves take the field for their 2024 home opener at Trustmark Park on Tuesday night, a lot of the names on the lineup card might be unfamiliar.

The one in the pitcher’s spot, however, is one Braves fans know very well.

J.J. Niekro, the latest branch in one of baseball’s best family trees, will be the starting pitcher for the M-Braves when they play Biloxi at 6:05 p.m. J.J. is the son of former major league pitcher Joe Niekro, and the nephew of MLB Hall of Famer and Braves legend Phil Niekro. His brother, Lance, also played four seasons in the majors with the San Francisco Giants.

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J.J. called it “a privilege” to carry on the Niekro name through another generation of baseball, and that any pressure that comes from it is not from the high standards his forebears set on the field but rather the good reputation they earned off of it.

“I wouldn’t say it’s pressure. I truly think it’s a privilege to be blessed with the Niekro last name. My uncle had a really successful big league career, a Hall of Famer. My dad the same thing. You just have to realize baseball has changed and you can never live up to those standards,” J.J. Niekro said. “The big thing they always wanted me to live up to is to be the best person I could be. My dad and my uncle were always the best teammates in the locker room. That’s always the legacy that I want to live up to.”

The Niekro name is synonymous with the 1970s and ‘80s era of Braves baseball. Phil spent 21 of his 24 major league seasons with the franchise and earned 268 of his 318 career victories with the team. His No. 35 was retired by the Braves in 1984. He died in December 2020.

“My uncle had a really great career with them, so it’s cool to see his number retired over the locker room and some different areas around our spring training complex, our big league field and even here in Mississippi,” J.J. Niekro said.

Joe Niekro only spent two of his 22 seasons with Atlanta, in 1973 and ‘74, but was a standout pitcher in his own right. He finished his career with 221 victories while playing for seven teams, and was part of the Minnesota Twins’ 1987 World Series championship team. He died in October 2006, when J.J. was only 8 years old.

Joe and Phil have the most combined wins (539) by two brothers in baseball history.

J.J. signed with the Braves as an undrafted free agent in 2021, which he said was like a dream come true.

“(Phil’s) wife, my aunt, was just over the moon ecstatic for me. Everyone in my family was really excited because the Braves just run really deep in our family,” J.J. said. “If I’d have had to pick one organization to play for it would always be the Atlanta Braves.”

While he hopes to one day enjoy the big league success that his father and uncle had, J.J. does differ from them in one big way.

Both Joe and Phil Niekro were famous for throwing knuckleballs, a slow specialty pitch that is difficult to master. J.J. said both of them taught him how to throw it, but it is not one of his four main pitches. Instead, he relies on a four-seam fastball, sinker, slider and change-up.

“I’m sure if my dad would’ve been around he would’ve shown me this is how you throw a knuckleball,” J.J. said. “He showed me a couple of times, but when you’re 8 your hands are so small you can’t really grip it or have a concept. All you want to do is go play, or go play video games or whatever.”

As J.J. grew older and started developing into a prospect, his uncle Phil took on the role of mentor. That included teaching him how to throw the knuckleball just like he learned it from J.J.’s grandfather — a good semi-pro player in his own right — a generation earlier.

Still, J.J. said, he wasn’t able to fully master it.

“My uncle, since I was pitching well when I was growing up, said just go with your best stuff right now,” J.J. said. “My uncle said keep rolling with what you’ve got and then he died in ‘20 or ‘21 so I never consistently worked on it. My stuff has gotten me here, so hopefully I’ll keep rolling with it.”

There will come a time, however, when J.J. knows he’ll have to break out the knuckler. Unlike his father, who started using it while he was in a slump in the early 1970s, or others who turned to it to save their careers, J.J. plans to throw it as a tribute to his ancestors.

“I always told everyone, if I make the big leagues the first pitch I throw I’m going to get one of my dad’s or my uncle’s old gloves, do a big knuckleball wind-up and then watch them send it over the fence,” he said with a laugh. “I’d have to throw at least one. I know how to throw it.”

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured reporters in the paper's 140-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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