Atlanta Braves legends visit Citadel practice

  • Monday, February 3, 2014

Atlanta Braves Hall of Famer Phil Niekro and All-Star Javy Lopez visited with The Citadel baseball team Friday at Joseph P. Riley, Jr. Park. FRANKIE MANSFIELD

It didn't take long. An introduction on the field and a few minutes together in the dugout and most everyone in Joseph P. Riley, Jr. Park was enthralled.

It's not every day you meet a childhood hero or a sports legend. The Citadel baseball team met both Friday as Atlanta Braves All-Star catcher Javy Lopez and Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro joined the team for its afternoon practice. Midway through, Niekro and Lopez stepped onto the field to greet the team, umpires, staff and anyone else who wanted a handshake, autograph or picture. Some called them heroes or idols, one even boasted to having a picture of Lopez holding him as a baby.

Neikro was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1997 after tallying more than 300 wins as a knuckleball pitcher. He made five all-star appearances and won five Gold Gloves. Lopez was the starting catcher for the 1995 World Series champion Atlanta Braves. He's a three-time all-star and 1996 NLCS MVP.

Since retiring in 2006, Lopez says he's spending more time with his kids and playing golf. Niekro's passion has turned to chasing fish around Georgia when he's not helping coach his grandson's travel ball team.

"I fish a lot but not as much as I used to," Niekro joked. "I don't get out more than three times a day right now so I'm kind of backing off (fishing)."

The two were in town as keynote speakers for Friday night's 10th annual Hot Stove Banquet and Auction, a fundraising initiative benefitting the Storm Eye Institute at MUSC, as well as The Citadel, College of Charleston and Charleston Southern baseball.

Both reminisced on their playing days and talked about the current Braves team but also came with a message for the younger generations. Lopez centered on the game and the importance of persevering through its challenges.

"It's never easy to obtain your goals," he said. "It takes a lot of sacrifice. Basically, you have to go through hell to get to heaven. That's what happened to me. Going through the minor leagues ... wasn't easy for me. But I never gave up. I battled and did what I have to do to make it to the big league. I did what I had to do to stay in the big league, which is the hardest part in my opinion."

Niekro brought a broader message of appreciating family values. He mused over his childhood, playing bingo with his mother and learning his father's infamous knuckle ball at 10 years old in his backyard in West Virginia. He spoke fondly of his late brother, Joe, who he says gave him the greatest gift he has ever received.

"That was three words, I love you," Niekro said. "I think that's the greatest gift you can give anybody. I don't think we say that enough. Some 84,000 seconds in a day, it takes one second or two seconds to say that. You never know what's going to happen tomorrow so it's a nice gift to give everybody every day."

Lopez and Niekro both still follow the Braves. Lopez said the recent induction of Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine was only a matter of time. He praised current Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez and the job he's done taking over for longtime manager Bobby Cox.

"I'm very happy to see (Maddux and Glavine) go in at the same time," Lopez said. "That's something very special.

"Fredi has done a tremendous job. It was hard to fill out Bobby Cox's shoes once he retired ... and so far he's done a really good job. People like him, players like him, respect him. Hopefully, with the team we have, we can do some damage."

Niekro travels to Florida to watch the Braves' spring training but says he's just as big a fan of minor league baseball, especially the Braves' Triple-A affiliate, the Gwinnett Braves.

"I love minor league baseball," he said. "So I go there a lot to see the future guys that are going to be in the big leagues. Everybody thinks baseball is just big leagues but there's some great baseball in the minor league systems and the (Charleston) RiverDogs here have a great ballpark so those of you who haven't been out here, come out and see some great baseball."

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