Joe Niekro Foundation and Arizona Fall League Partner To Strike Out Aneurysms

Natalie Niekro threw out the first pitch at the Houston Astros game on September 13, 2009. She will be throwing out the first pitch at three Arizona Fall League games between October 26-31 as part of "Aneurysm Awareness Week" at the Arizona Fall League.Natalie Niekro threw out the first pitch at the Houston Astros game on September 13, 2009. She will be throwing out the first pitch at three Arizona Fall League games between October 26-31 as part of “Aneurysm Awareness Week” at the Arizona Fall League.


Unlike the deceptive and tricky pitch that her father used to record 221 major league victories, Natalie Niekro’s goal for the Joe Niekro Foundation is very straightforward and simple. She is determined to turn the tragedy of his death from a brain aneurysm three years ago into a positive by using his memory and celebrity to increase awareness about and funding for brain aneurysm research.


Following on the heals of the foundation’s successful initial fundraiser earlier this year, the Joe Niekro Foundation is continuing its mission of “Knuckling Up for Aneurysm Research” by teaming up with the Arizona Fall League to raise money and increase awareness.


The Fall League has designated the week of October 26 as “Aneurysm Awareness Week.”  As a result, every strikeout recorded that week by a pitcher from one of the seven teams that Joe Niekro played for during his 22-year career in the majors will result in a donation to the foundation.


“So far we have three sponsors that each will donate $36 per strikeout,” Natalie Niekro said. “The number 36 is important to us because that was my dad’s number.”


In addition, Natalie, a marketing executive in Scottsdale, and her husband, Luke Woosley, will match each donation.


Joe Niekro began his major league career in 1967 with the Chicago Cubs and went 24-18 with the Cubs before being traded to the San Diego Padres early in the 1969 season. He also pitched for the Detroit Tigers and Atlanta Braves before landing in Houston at the start of the 1975 season.


Joe Niekro began his 22-year major league career with the Chicago Cubs in 1967.Joe Niekro began his 22-year major league career with the Chicago Cubs in 1967.


It was during his 11 seasons in Houston that Joe Niekro became an All-Star.


Like his brother, Hall of Famer Phil Niekro, Joe used the fluttering knuckleball to frustrate hitters.


After being used both as a starter and reliever throughout his career, in 1979 Niekro became the ace of the Houston staff and finished second in the Cy Young Award balloting with a 21-11 record and 3.00 ERA.


The following season, he won 20 games as the Astros reached the National League Championship Series for the first time in team history.


After winning 144 games for the Astros, Niekro was traded to the New York Yankees in September 1985. Though the trade ended his long tenure with the Astros, it allowed Joe to be reunited with his brother just in time to watch Phil record his 300th career victory on October 6, 1985.


Joe was traded to the Minnesota Twins in 1987 and was a member of their World Series Championship team during that season. He finished his career with the Twins in 1988.


Joe Niekro won 144 of his 221 career victories with the Houston Astros. He finished second in the 1979 Cy Young Award voting.Joe Niekro won 144 of his 221 career victories with the Houston Astros. He finished second in the 1979 Cy Young Award voting.

The 539 career victories by the Niekro brothers are the most by a brother tandem in baseball history.


Following his retirement, Niekro worked with a number of aspiring professional baseball players, including future Boston Red Sox hurler Tim Wakefield, who learned the knuckleball from Niekro.


He also worked with his son, Lance, who played college baseball at Florida Southern College and spent parts of four seasons with the San Francisco Giants.


On October 26, 2006, Niekro suffered a brain aneurysm and passed away the following day.


Aneurysm Awareness Week” in the Arizona Fall League will coincidentally start three years to the day of his attack.


During the week, information brochures and public address announcements will help increase awareness about aneurysms and the foundation.


“Steve Cobb [Executive Director of the Arizona Fall League] has been very supportive,” Natalie said. “This is a great opportunity to increase awareness about the foundation and brain aneurysms both with the general public, but also within baseball.”


In addition, Natalie will be throwing out the first pitch at three games. Those games are: 10/26 – Peoria Sports Complex – 6:35 p.m.; 10/30 – Scottsdale Stadium – 6:35 p.m., and; 10/31 – Good year -12:35 p.m.


While most of us might be a little intimidated by the thought of throwing out the first pitch at multiple baseball games, Natalie approaches it just as you would expect from the daughter of a major leaguer.


In fact, when she threw out the first pitch at the Houston Astros game in September, Natalie was ready to throw the family special.


“Lance Berkman was catching the pitch and said I could move up to throw if I needed to,” Natalie recalled. “My dad taught me the knuckleball when I was three. I told him I would be okay.”


Natalie was happy to report that the pitch was a strike down the middle that “even fluttered a little.”


In addition to raising funds for the foundation, Natalie also hopes the week will assist in her mission to make people aware that brain aneurysms are common, deadly, and treatable.

“One in 15 people have a brain aneurysm,” she said. “They are treatable, but most people don’t know they have one until it is too late.


“Our mission is to raise enough money that they can develop an affordable detection method.”


She will have a chance to take the message to a national audience on November 7th, which would have been her father’s 65th birthday, thanks to the MLB Network. The Network will be televising the Arizona Fall League Rising Stars Game that night and Natalie has been invited to be a guest in the broadcast booth during the game.


Natalie’s passion and persistence has been helpful in getting the Joe Niekro Foundation off the ground and making a difference in a relatively short period of time.


The foundation was originally scheduled to hold its first fundraising event in Houston in September 2008. Unfortunately, Hurricane Ike hit the Galveston-Houston area that week and the event had to be postponed.


Natalie Niekro and the Niekro Foundation was recognized before the Astros game with Pittsburgh on September 13, 2009.Natalie Niekro and the Niekro Foundation was recognized before the Astros game with Pittsburgh on September 13, 2009.


Undeterred, Natalie kept moving forward and on July 31, 2009 the First Annual Knuckle Ball took place at Minute Maid Park. The formal event was a huge success as it raised $450,000 for aneurysm research.


Natalie is already planning for the 2010 event.

She is hopeful that the partnership with the Arizona Fall League will lead to additional opportunities with the Cactus League in Arizona as well as with other entities within Major League Baseball.


Because her father played so long and with so many teams, his legacy has touched many organizations and individuals across baseball and made it easier for Natalie to make contacts and leverage opportunities.


In addition, having a Hall of Fame pitcher for an uncle also has helped Natalie increase her Rolodex. While she does not anticipate having another event similar to the Knuckle Ball in other cities, she is hopeful that eventually the foundation will be able to forge connections with all the teams for which her father played.


“I’m very pleased with what we have done in a short time and appreciate all the people who have helped us,” Natalie said, “but I know there is much more that we can do.”


If you are interested in becoming a sponsor for the Arizona Fall League “Aneurysm Awareness Week”, please write to nniekro@joeniekrofoundation.org. To simply donate to the cause please visit the website at www.joeniekrofoundation.org.


Dean Hybl is a supporter of A Glove of Their Own, the award winning children’s book that teaches Paying it Forward through baseball. Visit the site and purchase using donor code JNF636 The Joe Niekro Foundation as $3. from each purchase will go directly to the JNF.

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