Just like former U.S. presidents and old astronauts, knuckleball pitchers are a small clique, and it's a tight one. So it wasn't surprising to hear Phil Niekro say with enthusiasm regarding R. A. Dickey, "Well, he's like part of the family, really."
As for that family, Niekro represents knuckleball generations gone by, ranging from Hoyt Wilhelm to Charlie Hough to Wilbur Wood to Tom Candiotti, and Dickey is the knuckleball star of now.
Is he ever. For one, Dickey is now the only knuckleball pitcher in the Major Leagues. For another, while leaving hitter after hitter baffled by his version of the mysteriously floating pitch that made Niekro famous along the way to the Hall of Fame, Dickey has spent this season with the New York Mets as one of the game's best pitchers.
Dickey has been the best pitcher.
He has stayed at or near the top of the Major Leagues in victories, ERA, strikeouts, quality starts and causing folks to say, "Wow," during his dominant stretches on the mound. As much as anybody, he is a key reason the Mets have remained a threat in the National League East despite ranking as also-rans before the season.
In Dickey's last start on Wednesday night against the Tampa Bay Rays, he improved his record to 10-1 with a 2.20 ERA after a sensational complete-game victory. He struck out 12, walked none and allowed only an infield hit in the first inning.
Niekro has applauded Dickey all the way.
"Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah," said Niekro, nicknamed "Knucksie," chuckling over the phone from his home in Atlanta, where he played 21 of his 24 seasons in the Major Leagues with the Braves. "I always see him pitch when he's on TV, or when he's here in Atlanta. He's really on fire, I know that. We've met and talked, so I think we're friends."
No, they're family. They became that way about "two or three years ago," when Niekro got a call from Dickey out of the blue.
Actually, it was out of the orange, because Dickey was dialing from his native Tennessee. That's the dominant color for a state that hugs the orange-obsessed Volunteers of the University of Tennessee, where Dickey starred in baseball. He was an Academic All-America at Tennessee while majoring in English literature.
As a result, no player in the Major Leagues has a more interesting past or present than Dickey.
He is a deep thinker, with his locker stuffed with books more appropriate for your average Rhodes scholar from an Ivy League school. He recently wrote his autobiography that spans from honest talk about his sexual abuse as an eight-year-old to his marital infidelities. He spent last winter climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.
He also continues to employ the things he learned from Niekro after he made that call to the knuckleball legend, hopped in his car and drove to Atlanta for a face-to-face meeting.
Niekro took things further than that.
"He brought a catcher with him, so we went to an indoor hitting cage in town, and we worked on a couple of things," Niekro said. "We were there maybe an hour or an hour and a half. He had a pretty good knuckleball, so we just talked about the mentality of it. The philosophy of it. How do you stay with it? How do you steadily get confidence in it?
"Then we worked on his delivery a little bit, and then he asked me questions, and then I asked him questions. It got to the point where, when it was over, I felt good about what we had done, and I think he felt good."
Here was the result: With Niekro's words rattling around Dickey's ever-churning brain, Dickey finished his first season with the Mets in 2010 with an 11-9 record and a 2.84 ERA. His record wasn't as impressive last season at 8-13, but he still had a nice ERA of 3.28.
Now you have Dickey's dance with greatness for a season. And consider what was happening to the right-hander prior to the convergence of his Mets career and his Niekro session.
It wasn't greatness.
In fact, Dickey was in danger of being forced to fulfill his dream of becoming an English lit professor early.
There was Dickey's ligament revelation. Soon after he left the University of Tennessee to sign with the Texas Rangers in 1996, an examination showed that he didn't have the ligament that normally would extend to the pitching elbow. The Rangers slashed his original signing bonus by a bunch.
Then, four years after Dickey made his Major League debut in 2001, the Rangers determined their no-ligament pitcher with the weak fastballs needed to retire or reinvent himself.
The Rangers recommended the knuckleball.
The results weren't good. In 2006, Dickey was pounded for a Major League record-tying six home runs during his first start as a knuckleball pitcher, and the following year, he tied another Major League record by throwing four wild pitches in an inning.
Worse, after each of Dickey's first three seasons as a knuckleball pitcher, he never finished with better than a 4.62 ERA. That included stops with the Seattle Mariners and the Minnesota Twins.
That was before Dickey's stop in Atlanta with Niekro.
"I knew he had a few years on him at that point, but I told him that knuckleball pitchers can last a long time," the 73-year-old Niekro said of Dickey, now 37. "I told him not to lose confidence in it, stay with it, and just get the ball over the plate consistently."
So Niekro became Dickey's unofficial pitching coach, because there are no official knuckleball coaches. There isn't a need, especially now. When Tim Wakefield retired after last season with the Boston Red Sox following nearly two decades in the Major Leagues, Dickey became the only knuckleball pitcher in the game.
Niekro also worked with Wakefield.
"I worked with him for about three years when he was with the Red Sox, and they put me on the payroll," Niekro said. "I went to Spring Training every year, and whenever he had a problem, they would fly me up there, and I would work with him four, five, six days."
By the way, remember I mentioned that Dickey is tied for the Major League record for most wild pitches in an inning?
Niekro is in that five-way tie.
He laughed, saying, "I remember I walked 12 or 13 guys once against the Pirates in Atlanta one day, and won 1-0."
Thus, Niekro's plaque in Cooperstown.
At this rate, it could be for pitching and coaching.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com.