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Remembering a special night at the ball park

Phil Niekro is coming to town.

The Hall of Fame pitcher will sign autographs at a local Sam's Club on Wednesday, July 27.

Maybe I am showing my age, but the former Braves' pitcher was one of my boyhood heroes. With his dancing, floating knuckleball, Niekro kept batters off-balanced with a pitch only a few have ever been able to master. His slow-moving baseball was good enough to keep Niekro employed well into his 40s.

By the time he hung it up, the 48-year-old, long past the age when most big leaguers retire, had won 314 games, struck out 3,342 and finished with a 3.35 E.R.A.

Those statistics were good enough to stamp his ticket to Cooperstown and the baseball Hall of Fame.

Pete Rose, one of the game's best, and most controversial, hitters of all-time might have said it best -- "Trying to hit that thing is a miserable way to make a living."

Earning the nickname "Knucksie", Niekro spent most of his 25 years in the Majors pitching on some very bad Braves' teams.

Still, there were some bright moments for the five-time all-star. His no-hitter on August 5, 1973 was a magical moment. He also appeared in two-playoff series for the Braves.

Through it all, Niekro remained a fan favorite. To this day, he is still one of the most popular Braves of all time.

One of my best baseball memories ever was the night I met Niekro and Dale Murphy in the players' parking lot at the old Fulton Country Stadium.

In an era of really bad Braves baseball, they were at times the only reason to buy a ticket to see a game at Fulton County Stadium.

I had just moved to Atlanta, and and even though I was a teen-ager and also a Phillies fan, meeting any big-league ball player was cool.

Being the new kid in the neighborhood was not easy, but my Dad took myself and my new friend and next door neighbor, Steve Fortenberry, to the Braves game.

Steve loved sports just as much as I did. Today, the former DeKalb County Teacher of the Year is back at our alma mater, Dunwoody High School, where he teaches and also serves as athletic director.

It was his suggestion that we take index cards to the game and try to get them autographed.

It worked.

After the contest, we were able to walk through the player's parking lot. It was a different era back then, because the parking lot was above ground and not guarded by one hundred security guards.

Players were down to earth and fan friendly. Most drove moderately priced cars or trucks, not fancy German sports cars that cost more than my house.

Dale Murphy, who ended his career with 298 home runs, signed autographs and made small talk with fans for what seemed to be more than an hour.

We spotted Niekro heading to his pick-up, and he gladly signed, too, also taking time to chat with a collection of eager fans who just wanted to meet him.

Players like Niekro and Murphy knew how important it was to sign an autograph or just say hello.

Most of today's players get that, too. The sad thing is there are plenty who don't want to be bothered.

But we may never see an era where fans and players can get so close again.

That night was a special act of generosity. I was a teen-ager who loved baseball, and one thing is for sure, I will never forget that night when Niekro and Murphy took time to autograph a small index card.

It was a routine they no doubt repeated hundreds of times every night, but it made me very happy, and gave me a baseball memory I will never forget.

Doug Gorman is sports editor for the Clayton News Daily and Henry Daily Herald. He can be reached at dgorman@news-daily.com.