Braves minor leaguer J.J. Niekro carrying on family legacy

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

NORTH PORT, Fla. — On an October morning in 2006, Joe Niekro drove his son, J.J., to St. Stephen Catholic School in Riverview, Florida. To 8-year-old J.J., everything seemed normal.

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Soon after the final bell rang at the end of the day, J.J. received his first clue something might be amiss as his best friend’s family picked him up and took him home. That’s kind of weird, he thought. His mom or dad almost always got him. J.J. and his friend played video games at the friend’s house, the final moments before he would experience a cruel tragedy.

The friend’s family took J.J. to the hospital, where he saw his dad, Joe, on life support. Joe soon died of a brain aneurysm, leaving behind a family that included his brother, the now-late Braves Hall of Famer Phil Niekro.

“We were listening to baseball radio on the way to school,” J.J. recalled, “and I never got to say goodbye to him.”

J.J. Niekro’s story is one of a kid forced to grow up and be the man of the house, of a fatherless child whose male role models became his uncle, brother and best friends’ dads. And then there’s the obvious: He is the latest Niekro in the Braves organization, someone who insists he feels more pride than pressure when wearing that name on the back of his jersey at minor league camp.

Asked if he’s comfortable talking about his father’s death and its impact on his life, J.J. doesn’t hesitate. “He was such a generous and loving man,” he says, “so I love to share his story whenever I can.” The same can be said for his uncle, Phil, a Braves legend who died in 2020.

And to J.J., carrying on the Niekro name and legacy is as much, if not more, about being a great human being than a standout baseball player. Not only is he playing every season in their honor, but he’s trying to live his life as they would’ve lived theirs.

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

‘Live out their tradition and legacy’

A couple of days before Phil Niekro died, J.J. held his uncle’s hand and looked into his eyes. J.J. felt like he also was saying goodbye to his dad, the moment he never got 14 years earlier. It felt like closure.

“Say goodbye to my dad, goodbye to my uncle, now it’s time to live out their tradition and legacy,” J.J. said.

J.J. said his uncle and dad were the same person. “Lit up the room whenever they went in there, both known as ‘Knucksie,’ had the stupidest jokes and crazy jokes to make everyone laugh,” he said. But to become the man they were and assume the Niekro characteristics, J.J. had to mature sooner than any kid should.

Lance Niekro, a former big leaguer and J.J.’s half-brother, painted a picture of the paths J.J. could have taken following his father’s death. “At that age and at a pivotal point, he definitely could’ve gone either way and probably nobody would’ve blamed him if he would’ve gone the wrong way,” Lance said over the phone. J.J. became much closer with his mother and centered himself on his Catholic faith.

After Joe Niekro died, Phil became like a father to J.J. Many of J.J’s friends’ dads offered their assistance. Over the years, J.J. has tried to draw characteristics from each of them.

His uncle Phil, J.J. said, just loved baseball and could entertain anyone. (“We could be watching grass grow, and he could find a way to make you laugh,” J.J. said). One friend’s dad showed J.J. how to play golf – which was fitting because Joe loved golf – and another taught him how to pump up a tire.

Soon after Joe died, J.J. became much more protective of his mother, Debra. He double-checked doors to make sure they were locked at night. He made sure to frequently check in on his mom to see if she felt comfortable. “He took a tragic situation and turned it into, ‘All right, this is my time to grow up earlier,’” Lance said.

Much of this came from the examples set by Joe and Phil, who always worried about others before themselves. “Just realized that life is a lot bigger than baseball or just school,” J.J. said. “It’s just being the best man you can possibly be – on the baseball field, school, wherever it may be.”

Of course, J.J. never forgot how well his father treated him. Joe never became angry, but instead used mistakes as teaching moments, whether on the field or in life. He exemplified kindness and generosity, something his son picked up.

“I just try to treat everyone the same way,” J.J. said. “Definitely a Niekro tribute for all of them.”

Credit: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

The Niekro name

Throughout the years, J.J. has received signs that his uncle and dad are with him. When he arrived at Jesuit High School in Tampa, he realized the hospital where his father died sat beyond the baseball field’s outfield fence, so he called his dad his “angel in the outfield.” At the Braves’ spring training complex player dorms – which feature names and numbers of former players outside the rooms – he is staying in the No. 35 Phil Niekro room, just one of the many locations you’ll see the Niekro name throughout the facility.

“I just really wish they could’ve gotten to see that Niekro last name in the spring training locker room because I know they would’ve been over-the-moon happy for me,” J.J. said. “I’ve done a lot of hard work since they passed away, so it’s really paying off to be here.”

When J.J. and his mother went from Florida to Georgia for Phil’s funeral, they stopped at a Dick’s Sporting Goods to purchase a Braves shirt. They grabbed one they liked, headed to the register and pulled out a credit card.

The employee saw the name on the credit card: “Niekro.”

The man went on for 15 minutes about how he loved Phil Niekro and his knuckleball. Phil is beloved among Braves fans for his 21 years in Atlanta. Joe played for the Braves, among the seven teams in his 22 major league seasons, and Lance had a brief stint in the minors with the organization.

Now the Braves have another Niekro. He knows about the franchise because he’s been around it. He used to go into the clubhouse with his uncle Phil. J.J. remembers his dad and uncle talking in such a way that would lead you to believe they enjoyed playing in Atlanta more than anywhere they’d been in their careers.

The youngest Niekro loves the game just as much as those who came before him.

“There’s a saying that you think you’re gripping a baseball your entire life,” J.J. said, “but really baseball is gripping you.”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

‘The underdog mentality’

On the baseball field, Joe Niekro was an underdog. He struggled early in his career before picking up the knuckleball. His son believes his father’s talent might’ve been overlooked.

“I kind of feel the same way, too. I try to keep the underdog mentality, the guy on the bottom of the totem pole,” J.J. said. “Even if I pitch the best game of my life, it’s like the next day, how do I come back? How do I be better?”

You won’t find J.J. on top prospect lists. He went undrafted in 2021, but the Braves saw him pitch in the MLB Draft League, a recently created opportunity for draft-eligible players. “He’d been a strike-thrower,” said Ben Sestanovich, the Braves’ assistant general manager for player development. “We’d obviously always liked that.”

J.J. signed with the Braves as a free agent and posted a 2.76 ERA over 16 ⅓ innings in rookie ball. He throws a four-seam fastball, two types of sliders – he recently developed a sweeping slider – and a change-up. He said he’s always been a bulldog on the mound, someone who attacks the zone and dares hitters to beat him. (In college, when J.J.’s team played the Detroit Tigers in a spring training scrimmage, Niekro got Miguel Cabrera, who likely will be a Hall of Famer one day, to ground out to short).

J.J. always has taken pride in his work ethic. He remembers seeing the seniors on his Florida Southern College team cry after their final game, some of those tears flowing because a few guys knew they hadn’t given their all to the game.

He’s never wanted that to be him.

“When I go to bed, one thing I really pride myself on is at the end of the day, when I lay my head down on the pillow, if I give everything I can to get better that day and I’m not good enough, so be it,” he said. “But I know I gave everything to the game.”