Niekro, Acta also honored at annual MLB Players Alumni Association dinner
By Mark Newman
NEW YORK -- White Sox third baseman Todd Frazier, who set career highs with 40 home runs and 98 RBIs in his first year in Chicago, was presented with the overall Heart & Hustle Award at the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association's 17th Legends for Youth Dinner on Tuesday at The Capitale.
The Heart & Hustle Award is given to 30 club winners who "demonstrate a passion for the game of baseball and best embody the values, spirit and tradition of the game." Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius was in attendance as the other finalist.
"When we talk about heart and hustle and passion in this game, I go out every day and try to be the best I can be, show the fans how to play the game of baseball, honestly go out there and play hard," Frazier said. "This is an award that I can basically tell my kids, when I get older, is something that is humbling, something that you work hard at every day. Whatever job you have to do, whether it's baseball or whatever job you do, give it 100 percent. Show the world what you've got and just enjoy every second of the day. ... You don't need to be an athlete to have heart and hustle."
In addition, Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro received the Lifetime Achievement Award. Niekro, a 318-game winner and five-time All-Star, pitched for 24 seasons from 1964-87, and it was fellow Braves legend and Hall of Famer John Smoltz -- whose 21-year career began the year after "Knucksie" said farewell -- who did the presenting. With Niekro was his wife, Nancy, who was a flight attendant on a Milwaukee Braves flight when he told a teammate in 1965 he was going to marry her; they just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.
"I've had a few honors, but that's one of my prized ones right there," Niekro said at the start of a half-hour speech that entranced a roomful of patrons, including 50 former or current players. "It all started in the little town of Lansing, Ohio, when my father would come back from the coal mine, and me and my late brother Joe would be sitting on the porch with our gloves. He'd get off the ride just as black as you can imagine after picking coal back in those mines. He'd sit there and open up his little lunch bucket, and he'd have a Twinkie or an apple for us, we'd eat it, and we'd go in the backyard and play catch. ... We'd go inside and have dinner, and my dad would fall asleep listening to the Cleveland Indians on the radio.
"And that was the start of it. One day he threw me a knuckleball. I didn't know what that thing was. It bounced around and probably hit me someplace. I asked him what it was, he told me, he showed me, I held it, and we started playing knuckleball in the backyard. I didn't even know if there was a knuckleball pitcher in the big leagues."
Niekro received $500 to sign with the Milwaukee Braves organization, and the rest is history -- 245 complete games and 3,342 strikeouts later. While fitting that Smoltz was the presenter, one of the coolest parts of the evening was seeing Niekro's fellow knuckleballers Tim Wakefield and Tom Candiotti on hand for support. They see themselves as "a little brotherhood," as Niekro said, and Wakefield called Niekro its president.
"It's a huge honor for me, because the guy was such an influence on me and a mentor to me his whole career," said Wakefield, who won 200 games in a 19-year career from 1992-2011. "It's awesome what he's passed on to so many people, including myself and Tom and R.A. [Dickey]. And being able to follow in his footsteps and pass the torch to [knuckleballer] Steven Wright with the Red Sox now, it's been cool to watch his career evolve the last couple of years."
"Phil Niekro was a big inspiration to me," said Candiotti, who won 151 games in a 16-year career from 1983-99. "When I was first coming up, he was with the Indians. It was the first time I met Phil. He kind of took me under his wing. I think I played catch with him every day at Spring Training, and all through the year he was like my own personal pitching coach. I don't think I would have made it in the big leagues if it wasn't for Phil."
Mariners third-base coach Manny Acta was given the Brooks Robinson Community Service Award. The award's Hall of Fame namesake, 79, did the presenting as always.
"The word of the night is 'humbling,'" said Acta, who became emotional during his speech as he spoke about his parents. "We don't work to get awards, and we don't need a pat on the back. This is unfair. I don't think I should be getting an award for something I'm supposed to do, because that's the way I look at it. I don't think helping our community should be optional. It should be a responsibility."
For the Heart & Hustle Award, the MLBPAA formed 30 committees comprised of alumni players with established relationships to each team. Fans, all alumni and active players vote to select the final winner from 30 team winners. The previous overall winners were David Eckstein (2005), Craig Biggio (2006, 2007), Grady Sizemore (2008), Albert Pujols (2009), Roy Halladay (2010), Torii Hunter (2011), Mike Trout (2012), Dustin Pedroia (2013), Josh Harrison (2014) and Anthony Rizzo (2015).
The dinner is the primary fundraiser for the series of free Legends for Youth Baseball Clinics. These clinics impact more than 15,000 children each year, allowing them the unique opportunity to interact with and learn from players who have left a lasting impact on the game of baseball.
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. Read and join other baseball fans on his MLB.com community blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.