When first baseman Lance Niekro walked off of the minor league baseball field for the last time in 2008, after unsuccessfully trying to recapture his Major League career, he could have left the game with a feeling of satisfaction.
Niekro had a respectable career as a hitter. The former second-round pick out of Florida Southern University appeared in 195 games with the San Francisco Giants during parts of four seasons in the big leagues. In 499 at-bats, he had a career Major League triple-slash line of .246/.288/.421. His nine-year Minor League line was .307/.340/.474.
But Niekro also played in a pretty big shadow. His father Joe and uncle Phil had amassed a combined 539 big-league wins and 46 seasons in the Majors. It was a shadow he could never truly escape. Every time he struggled with the bat, people would whisper that he should hang up his batting gloves for good and break out the family knuckleball.
Finally, at the age of 30, Niekro is embracing the shadow. On June 25, 2009, the right-hander took the mound for the first time as a full-time pitcher (He appeared in one game as a pitcher for triple-A Fresno in 2007 in a mop-up situation). Now with the Atlanta Braves organization – uncle Phil played for the organization for 18 seasons, father Joe played for them for two – the younger Niekro allowed two runs on six hits and two walks. He also struck out four batters and earned his first professional win. In his second game on July 3, Niekro worked three shutout innings with three hits and two walks allowed. He struck out two batters.
Niekro is a long, long way from realizing his dream of pitching in the Major Leagues. Currently throwing in the Gulf Coast League (rookie ball) against mostly 17- and 18-year-old hitters, his numbers must be taken with a grain of salt. The early reports on Niekro’s knuckleball are encouraging, but it takes a long time to truly master the pitch. If he does successfully harness the knuckler, though, it will make a great story and a fitting tribute to his father, who passed away in 2006.
Marc Hulet has been writing at FanGraphs since 2008. His work focuses on prospects and fantasy. Follow him on Twitter @marchulet.