LILBURN, GA., SEPT. 14 -- Phil Niekro, released at age 48, said he realizes the end of his baseball playing days may have come. But the man who won 268 games with the Atlanta Braves, third best in franchise history, wants to throw his last pitch wearing a blue-and-red cap with an "A" on the front.
With a career record of 318-274, Niekro believes he still can pitch, even though 1987 has been an awful year; his season record is 7-13, with a 6.10 earned run average.
"I've pitched some good ball games, and I've pitched some bad ones," he said. "It's not my age that's a determining factor. I know that I'm not going to pitch until I'm 60 or 65. But nobody wants to hire me."
Niekro's hopes of achieving a lifelong dream -- pitching in the World Series -- were bolstered on Aug. 9 when he was acquired by Toronto from the Cleveland Indians. But on Aug. 31, the Blue Jays released him.
Now, he is speaking with the Braves about some sort of role with the organization. Meanwhile, fans and sportswriters are calling for the Braves to hire him for a farewell pitching performance this month at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
"They're my home, my family," said Niekro, who broke in with the Braves in Milwaukee in 1964 and played 18 years with the franchise in Atlanta before being released at the end of the 1983 season.
"The Atlanta clubhouse is just like my own house," he said. "I can walk around in it blindfolded. That uniform is the only one I've ever wanted to wear. I didn't want to get out of it, but I didn't have a choice. When I got away from it the last three or four years, it was always my feeling that some way or another, I was going to come back to Atlanta and put that uniform on again.
"I've always said that when I did want to walk away from the game, the last picture of me is going to be with an Atlanta Braves uniform on. . . . I don't want it said that the last team he played with was the Toronto Blue Jays."
He wants to pitch one more time in Atlanta for old times' sake. But Niekro, who was honored by the Braves in an unusual 1984 ceremony -- a year after the Atlanta dumped him, and while he was winning for the New York Yankees -- says he doesn't want another "Phil Niekro Night."
"I don't want speeches," he said. "I don't want anyone to stop the game and say, 'We've enjoyed it.' Just give me the ball like I've always had it and if I last, fine. If not, come out and get me."