Joe Niekro's Knuckler Lives Through Arm of 12-Year-Old Girl
PLANT CITY, Fla. -- As an organ donor, pitching great Joe Niekro left his eyes behind so another man could see. He left his liver, kidneys and heart so three others could live today.
He left a unique and special gift -- his famed knuckleball -- to a precocious little girl who could be on the verge of inspiring a whole new generation of baseball players.
Chelsea Baker, only 12, has learned to make that pitch dance, to magically make it move like a butterfly on its way to home plate, baffling and befuddling young hitters. Like Joe taught her, shortly before his death in 2006 (the two are seen in the photo above).
"Joe would be so proud, so really proud,'' said Debbie Niekro, Joe's widow who has watched Chelsea pitch several times. "He really liked Chelsea. He loved the way she listened, and learned at that age. He knew she was going to be something special.''
Niekro was 61 when he died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. At the time, he was helping coach a Little League team on which Chelsea and his own son played in his adopted hometown of Plant City.
Chelsea was 8 when he died, too young to quite understand how final death would be, but old enough to understand the gift that Niekro had left her. It gave her a passion for the game, and specifically for the pitch.
"I bugged him to teach me because I never could hit that knuckleball when he would throw it to me in batting practice. He always said it was a secret, but he finally taught me, and we worked on it a lot,'' Chelsea told FanHouse last week after a game. "I love throwing it. My catcher says it's so nasty.''
And the batters can't touch it. Although there are many young girls peppered across America now playing Little League Baseball with the boys, there are only a few who can dominate as Chelsea does.
She has thrown two perfect games within the past year, including one in an All-Star Game. She is unbeaten this season in nine starts, throwing 54 innings and striking out 103 batters while allowing only four runs. She also is hitting .569, playing third base when she doesn't pitch.
"When she first came to me for instruction, I was thinking 'OK, here is a girl I can help,' '' said Keith Maxwell, a hitting instructor who played 12 years of professional baseball, including five with the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. "But after two weeks with her, I was like 'wow.' She has an incredible pop in her bat. She isn't just a pitcher. I thought, 'This is probably going to be the first girl to play Major League Baseball.' And I don't say that lightly.''
She already is being recruited to play for the Sparks, a girls baseball team based in the Northeast that tours nationally playing against the best boys teams in the country.
Chelsea, average size for a 12-year-old girl, is unusually athletic with a powerful arm and a fastball that comes close to 70 mph. Yet it's Niekro's knuckleball, and the passion he sparked, that makes her so special.
It's why in the fall, when her sixth-grade history assignment was to do a project on "Someone Who Changed The World,'' she selected Joe Niekro as her topic. She already had all his old baseball cards. She had several pictures of her and him on the baseball field together.
"I got an A on the project. The teacher told us it had to be about someone you felt strongly about,'' she said. "And I knew how famous Coach Joe was. I miss him. I remember before every game I pitched, I had to give him a kiss on the cheek before he'd give me the ball.''
Niekro pitched 22 seasons in the major leagues for seven different teams. He won 221 games. He and his brother Phil Niekro combined for 539 wins, the most of any brother tandem in history. Chelsea knows all those numbers now.
She is the one who wrote the moving passage that was used as part of Niekro's obituary tribute. It brought friends and family members to tears.
"Coach Joe taught me so much in the few short years I new (sic) him. He taught me how to have pride in myself, and to be humble. Most of all, he taught me to throw his famous knuckle ball. . . . . I miss seeing him . . . . . . and his happy face at the ballpark. I will always remember and love you. – CHELSEA BAKER.''
It was also Chelsea who came to the funeral viewing services and left a baseball in Niekro's open casket. And it wasn't just any baseball, either. It was a scuffed baseball, with four tiny and barely visible fingernail marks along the seams, exactly where he taught her to grip it.
"He taught me how to hold it like this,'' she demonstrated last week. "I usually wait until I have two strikes. They can't hit it. He told me that's how it would be.''
She is merely a seventh-grader, but watching her pitch or watching her play, or hearing her speak about Niekro, she seems much older. For all her accomplishments -- she will make her sixth consecutive All-Star team in Plant City -- she is surprisingly humble.
Some of her teachers at Turkey Creek Middle School don't even know she plays baseball. Most of the boys do, because they've been playing against her for several years, accepting her as one of the best. It's when she travels, as the only girl in her league, that occasionally she hears remarks about her being a girl. Mostly it's from the grandstands, from other parents.
"I still hear parents from other teams say, 'When is she going to start playing softball?' '' said stepfather Rod Mason, who helps coach her team now. "And it kind of ticks me off. So I usually just say, 'When she stops striking out your little Johnny.' ''
Mason and wife Missy have followed Chelsea's baseball from the start. She started with baseball because that's what Mason's sons played. And she just happened to be so good at it.
"I've had other parents tell me now that they couldn't get their girls to practice until they saw Chelsea play,'' Mason said. "I think her success will help other girls. She's just so unbelievably focused. I never ask her to practice. But she always comes to me.''
Home-plate umpires often come to Steve Gude, manager of her team now, and apologize for missing calls when Chelsea pitches. Her knuckleball often darts out and back into the strike zone when she keeps it low -- like Coach Joe taught her.
Joe never taught her this trick, but it's one she can do if you ask. She can stand out in center field -- and her arm is so strong -- she can throw a knuckleball all the way to home plate, giggling as it flutters through the air.
"Joe was really good to her,'' Mason said. "He went out of his way to help her. He was such a giving guy with all the kids, always willing to help. But I think he knew Chelsea was kind of special."