Baseball in the Blood Interview with Natalie Niekro…”I stayed in Florida for about a week, because I wanted to find out what this thing was that had just killed my dad.”

On The Phone With…Natalie Niekro

By Todd Coppernoll – April 13, 2012

NN:  Hi Todd, this is Natalie Niekro.

BitB:  Hi Natalie!  Thanks for calling.  Are you ready?

NN:  I sure am.

BitB:  OK, here are the rules, Natalie, we’ll talk about your famous baseball family, but I know we’re going to talk quite a bit about your father’s death, and what has come from it.  If there’s anything you don’t want to talk about, just say so, and we won’t.

NN:  No, it’s OK, you just fire away with questions, and I’ll answer them.  I’m going to get emotional, and I’ll probably start bawling, but that just happens.  It’s important that we talk about this.

BitB:  OK, well, let’s start by pointing out that you are Joe Niekro’s daughter, which makes you Phil Niekro’s niece, and Lance Niekro’s sister.

NN:  Yes I am.

BitB:  This is kind of funny; my own baseball playing days were over at age 14, pro baseball simply was never going to happen in my house, so I can’t imagine what it was like growing up as a Niekro.

NN:  You know, I’ve been asked that question a million times, and the only answer I can give is, “It’s all I know.”  I was born who I am, so it’s the only world I ever knew.   I had a great time, running around the Astrodome with my brother.  I just wish I had been older when my dad played, so I would have appreciated it more.

Baseball was just part of what we did, because my dad, and my uncle Phil were both major league pitchers, in fact my dad was pitching when I was born, he found out my mother had given birth to me on the Jumbotron.

BitB:  That’s a great story. 

NN:  The whole thing was a great experience – I wouldn’t trade it for the world.  We got to go a lot of places and meet a lot of people, like I said, it would have been nice if I had been older, because I would have appreciated it more – but I wouldn’t trade any of it.

BitB:  You say you wish you’d been older, do you remember your dad’s time with the different teams he played on?

NN:  Oh yes, absolutely, he pitched for a few other teams before this, but I remember him pitching for the Astros, the Yankees, and the Twins.

When my uncle was with the Yankees, my dad went to the Astros and he asked them to trade him to the Yankees, so he could be his brother’s teammate again, (they had been teammates with the Braves in the early 70s).  The Astros traded Dad to the Yankees, but that didn’t last too long.  The Yankees wound up releasing my uncle Phil.

BitB:  Welcome to the business side of baseball.

NN:  Yes, exactly.

BitB:  So you grew up around baseball, but are you a baseball fan?

NN:  Oh, yes, absolutely.  I know I don’t look like it, but I’m a tomboy at heart.  I love baseball.  Dad was always Lance’s coach, and his baseball mentor.  He’d take Lance to the Little League Park and pitch to him, and I’d be out there shagging fly balls.

BitB:  Tell me something about your dad that most people may not know…

NN:  Dad taught Tim Wakefield how to throw a knuckleball.  Tim tried to make it as an outfielder, but he came to see Dad and said, “I know I’ve got a good arm, but I can’t hit worth a crap. I need a pitch to get me there, I want you to teach me the knuckleball – then I’m going to go make something of it.”

I remember when Tim came to the house, I was just a little teenager, I was making goofy eyes at him and thinking, “Oh, Tim’s so cute.”

BitB:  Tim just retired now, he pitched sixteen Major League seasons after your dad helped him.

NN:  The knuckleball isn’t as hard on your arm as other pitches are, if you can master it, you can last a long time.

BitB:  Here it comes, Natalie, I know what you want to talk about most, but I also know how hard it must be to do it.

Please tell me about your father’s death.

NN:  (already beginning to sob lightly)

It was October 26, 2006.  I live in Arizona, I got a call from my brother in Florida, at 9 AM.  It wasn’t unusual for Lance to call me, but I remember thinking it was early for him to be calling me, he didn’t usually call me that early in the day.  I was about to walk into a big presentation, but I thought I’d better take the call, so I did, and Lance was sobbing into the phone, at a loss for words.

He told me something had happened to Dad, at that point they thought he’d had a heart attack, and he’d been Life Flighted from the little hospital in Plant City, FL, to St Joseph’s in Tampa.

I went right to the airport and said, “I need to be on the next flight to Florida.”  They had a flight leaving in one hour, so I bought the last seat on the plane…I didn’t even have a toothbrush on me.

I had a layover in Houston, so when I got there, I called my brother and he said it wasn’t good.  My sister-in-law is an anesthesiologist, and she was there when they were taking my dad for a CAT scan.  She said Dad’s arms and legs were twitching outward, which is a sign of neurological damage, twitching outward means it’s neurological.

By the time I got there it was almost midnight.  When I walked in the room Dad looked completely normal, except he had more tubes coming out of him than I could count.  They had him on life support.

Dad had a Grade 5 Brain Aneurysm, which is the worst you can have, a Grade 5 means it was at least 25mm.

They took him off life support to see if he would respond, and he didn’t, so they told us it was our choice to keep him here in this vegetative state, or turn off life support and let him go.  We talked about it as a family, including my aunt and uncle, and we knew Dad wouldn’t have wanted to live in a state like that, so we made the decision to turn life support off.

They told us Dad was a candidate for organ donation, that’s one thing, when a person dies of a brain aneurysm, their organs continue to function even though the brain has died.  We knew what Dad would have wanted was to give life to others so we made the decision to donate his organs, and, (crying much harder), six lives were saved.

BitB:  Hang on a minute.  That’s fantastic, Natalie, six people survived, that’s a terrific, very giving decision your family made.

NN:   It was an easy decision that we knew Dad would have supported.  The crazy thing was, all of this had happened in 18 hours.  From Dad’s headache, to turning off life support and organ donation, the whole thing happened in 18 hours, it was just crazy.

I stayed in Florida for about a week, because I wanted to find out what this thing was that had just killed my dad.  I started reading everything I could about brain aneurysms, and I was shocked to find out 1 in 15 people will have one in their lifetime.  That’s a lot of people, these are very common, and the thing is, they are 100% treatable, if you know you’ve got one.  100% treatable, but you have to know you have one before it’s too late.  Some people survive, even after the aneurysm bursts, but the majority of them are left with severe physical deficits.

I knew right away that I wanted to teach people, and help people, so their families wouldn’t have to experience this tragedy, the way my family had.  I started a foundation, which took about six months to set up as a 501c3 with the IRS, and I very quickly got the foundation connected with Major League Baseball, through the connections I have.  We have ten chapters now, and we’ve raised and given away over two million dollars for research and education.

BitB:  Natalie, let’s stop for a minute on that point.  I’ve done a lot of interviews, and I’ve known lots of people personally who have experienced real tragedy and sudden loss.  You should be very proud of yourself.  There are two sides to this coin, some people shut down and quit, and some people are sort of inspired by what’s happened to them, and they take action.  You’ve clearly made the decision to take action, which is not easy, because it means you’ll be confronted by grief and emotion a lot more often.

This is going to sound completely ridiculous, because you and I are just getting to know each other, and we’ve never met in person, but “I’m proud of you.”  I say that because I’ve seen real tragedy up close, and we’ve experienced it in my own house, so I know how hard it is to keep going the way you have.

NN:  Well, thank you, you’re very sweet.

BitB:  Thanks, Natalie, but I really mean it.  Grief is an invisible foe, it does its own thing, and you never know when it will come…through a song, a smell, or just any memory.  To start The Joe Niekro Foundation and dive right into what happened in your family, to help other people – that takes real conviction, you should be very proud of yourself.

NN:  Well, thank you, doing this has been very therapeutic.  I feel like, by doing this, I’m keeping Dad’s legacy alive.  When this happened to my dad, it seemed like nothing was being done, so I did it.

The night before this happened, Dad and I had talked on the phone for three hours.  It wasn’t uncommon at all for us to talk on the phone, but it was uncommon for us to be on the phone for three hours like that.  We talked so long because I was getting married in four weeks.  I remember Dad hadn’t gotten fitted for his tux yet, so I gave him a hard time about that, and I told him to hurry up and get fitted.

That’s what he did that day, he went and got fitted for his tux, then he ran a few errands, and he said to his wife, “I have a little headache.”  That was not like my dad at all, to complain about not feeling well, so his wife told him he should go to the doctor.  He told her, “I’m fine.”

Dad’s wife convinced him to go to the doctor, so he did, and the nurse checked his vitals, which were fine.  She told him he should walk across the street to the hospital and go to the ER, just to be sure.  She told him to say he had chest pains, because they don’t make you wait in line if you have chest pains, they put you right in a room.

Dad went over to the ER and said he had chest pains, so they put him right in a room.  When the doctor came in, Dad said, “I don’t have chest pains, I have a headache today.”  The doctor checked his vitals, which were fine, then he told Dad he was going to check his vitals every fifteen minutes.  On the second check, the doctor said his vitals were fine again, so the doctor said he was going to check him one more time, and if they were good, he was going to send him home.

As the doctor walked out, Dad said, “Oh my God, it feels like my brain is bleeding!”

It was just that fast, Dad was convinced he was fine, and the doctor was ready to send him home, and just like that, there was no hope.

BitB:  That is simply amazing.

NN:  I’m sorry, I’m telling you about this, and I’m sobbing.

BitB:  Sorry?  For gosh sakes, why?  You’re doing great, in fact, I think you’re pretty amazing for taking this on and talking so openly about it.

NN:  I remember on the flight, I had bought the last seat, so I was in the middle seat, and I never said two words to the people sitting next to me, I was just sitting there crying hysterically.  When I got to Houston, I went to call my brother, and there was this small child there, like a five-year-old, and the child was crying, throwing a tantrum, so I couldn’t hear.  I turned to the child’s mother and I snapped, “Please have your child be quiet!”  She snapped something back at me, so I said, “I have a father who’s dying!”  That memory has stuck with me of that child crying, and me not being able to hear what was going on, it was just a crazy, awful time, trying to get to where my dad was.

BitB:  I’m sure if she’d known what was happening, that child’s mother wouldn’t have snapped back at you.

NN:  I’m not usually like that.

BitB:  I can tell, honestly, you sound like “The Girl Next Door”, you sound like you could be from any town in America, just telling someone your story.  That’s very impressive, most people can’t do that, but you sound completely at ease telling me all of this, and it’s very difficult stuff you’re sharing with me.

What’s going on with the Joe Niekro Foundation?

NN:  We’ve got an event coming up in Houston, April 27th and 28th, it’s called, “The Knuckle Ball.”  This is the third year we’ve done it – it’s at Minute Maid, where the Astros play.  We chose Houston because that’s the place where Dad played the longest, so it seemed to be the most fitting.  The name of the event is “The Knuckle Ball”, because that’s the pitch Dad was famous for, and the tagline is, “A Pitch for Life.”  Friday night is a big get-together, we have three Country acts coming in from Nashville, because Dad was a big Country fan.  Then Saturday night is a black tie event, with an auction, and a silent auction, my uncle Phil is the Master of Ceremonies, and we have an athlete seated at every table, so everyone dines with an athlete.  It’s mostly baseball players, but we’ve spilled it over into the NBA and NFL too.

It’s a great event, and like I said, we’ve raised and given away over two million dollars so far.

BitB:  I’ll post a link, so people can get more information…http://joeniekrofoundation.com/events/22-the-knuckle-ball.html

NN:  Thank you, anything you can do to help us reach more people – that’s what I’m doing.  I know if Dad were here, he’s around all the time, but I mean if he was still here physically, he’d want us to do this, to teach people and help them avoid what happened to him.  Dad was always very philanthropic, and he taught us to give back.  Quitting was never an option in our house, so we won’t, we’ll keep doing this, and we’ll keep giving back, which is another reason why we chose the city of Houston.  Houston was where Dad had so many great things happen, so it’s a natural place to go and give something back.

BitB:  How is your brother Lance doing?  I know he played in the big leagues for the Giants.

NN:  Dad’s death has been really hard on my brother.  Dad was his mentor, I think when he died, that caused Lance’s mind to sort of drift out of the game, which is why he made the decision to retire.

Lance did a couple of odd jobs, but he realized his heart was in baseball, and baseball was what he was meant to be doing, so he got back into it.  Lance is a baseball coach at Florida Southern, which is where he went to college.

BitB:  That’s great, good for him!

NN:  My brother and I are very close – we always have been.  Lance is married, and they have a one-year-old son.

We both realize life always has obstacles, no matter who you are, but you’ve got to use those obstacles to make your lives better.

BitB:  In closing, what would you like to tell people?

NN:  I’m not doing this for attention, in the least, but there was a time when no one knew who Susan G Komen was, and there will be a time when everyone has heard from me.  I’m not interested in any notoriety of any kind, I’m just spreading the word and teaching people because this thing happened to my dad, and it could happen to you.  This is 100% treatable, and I’ve got a chance to teach people, so by golly, I’m going to get it done.

BitB:  Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help, and I’ll do it.

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