What's happening in the Arizona Fall League this week takes the whole K-charity idea to a new level.
The league is working with the Joe Niekro Foundation to raise money and awareness for brain aneurysm research. Three years ago, All-Star knuckleballer Joe Niekro suffered an aneurysm and passed away the following day. Aneurysm Awareness Week in the AFL begins on Oct. 26, the third anniversary of his death.
"I want to get as tied into Major League Baseball as I can," said Natalie Niekro, Joe's daughter, the president of the Foundation and a resident of Scottsdale, Ariz. "What can I do to incorporate all of the teams in the quickest way possible? I know the Fall League represents all of the teams. I contacted [AFL executive director] Steve Cobb. At first, he was a little apprehensive. As soon as I sent him the idea, he called me within minutes and said he'd love to be involved."
The fundraiser is a combined effort from pitchers across several organizations. Over the course of the week, the strikeouts recorded by pitchers from the seven Major league organizations for which Joe Niekro pitched -- the Cubs, Padres, Tigers, Braves, Astros, Yankees and Twins -- will be tallied. Four sponsors have each agreed to donate $36 for each strikeout. Niekro and her husband, Luke Woosley, will match the total for the week. All the money will go straight to the Foundation and its efforts to raise awareness about and funding for aneurysm research.
There's much to learn. Most don't know that aneurysms affect one in 15 people. Niekro herself didn't know until she was impacted directly. Having started the foundation, she consistently hears from people who have been similarly affected. The Fall League program is another step toward educating people about how commonplace aneurysms are.
"I know there won't be a lot of people at these games, but it's another opportunity to get the name of the foundation out there, educate people about aneurysms and spread the word about what we're trying to do," said Niekro, whose brother Lance played in the AFL in 2002 and '03 while with the San Francisco Giants organization.
The timing of the effort is almost eerie. It starts on the third anniversary Joe Niekro's death. On Saturday, Nov. 7, Natalie Niekro will be at the Rising Stars Showcase on national TV (the game will be broadcast by the MLB Network), accepting the check from the week of strikeouts. That day just happens to be Joe Niekro's birthday. The $36-per-strikeout donation has significance as well as 36 was Niekro's number.
"It was complete fate," Natalie Niekro said. "It was dad working from above. All the stars were aligned."
They were certainly aligned to get the AFL's involvement. Cobb says he went from uninformed to on board quickly, largely because Niekro was so passionate about the cause and came with the entire program in place.
"To be honest with you, Natalie's enthusiasm toward this was the swing vote for me," Cobb said. "Once I met with her and saw her dedication to this, that's what hooked me. I had not been aware of the foundation in the past. She had done all the leg work in terms of sponsors. We came up with a concept to recognize her father's 22-year career by acknowledging all seven Major League teams he played with.
"It was a very easy decision on my part. We're happy to be associated with this and try to raise awareness on brain aneurysms."
It looks like it might be more than a one-time thing too. Aneurysm Awareness Week might become a mainstay of the Fall League that could act as a springboard to other involvement with baseball, with ideas for Spring Training and even more strikeout-related fundraisers during the regular season if sponsors can be found.
This is the second big effort the fairly new foundation has undertaken to raise money and awareness. The first Knuckle Ball took place in Houston this July and was very successful. The next one is scheduled for Nov. 13, 2010, an offseason date picked so current players would be available.
For now, though, the focus is on Arizona. The AFL is a developmental league and the value of strikeouts for a pitcher could be debated. But for one week anyway, the pitchers from those seven organizations will know that every K will be very important, beyond just impressing scouts and team officials.
"With this charity, although I'm not a strikeout pitcher, I'll rear back a little, I'll snap the wrist a little more," Tigers pitching prospect Scot Drucker said. "Anything to help out a cause, I'm more than happy to. Those are things I enjoy anyway. I'll do my best to strike out people. It'll give me an extra incentive."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.