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Niekro returns to help Braves cope with the knuckleball

A part of Atlanta history arrived at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium on Tuesday night in hopes of adding new glory for the Braves.

Phil Niekro, the knuckleballer who earned 268 of his 318 big-league victories as a member of the Braves, made amends with the club long enough to throw 30 minutes of batting practice before Game 6 of the National League Championship Series.

Bruce Dal Canton, a former knuckleballer who is now the Braves' Class AAA Richmond pitching coach, also threw batting practice as the Braves prepared for their faceoff against Pittsburgh knuckleballer Tim Wakefield.

Niekro had a nasty departure from the Braves last winter. He declined a chance to return for a second year as manager at Richmond for philosophical differences. He felt the Braves were too committed to development instead of winning.

No harsh words were spoken Tuesday, though.

"This is the first time I tried to let them hit the ball," said Niekro, who said he hadn't thrown the pitch in three years. "It is a good way to work up a sweat other than mowing the yard."

As far as hitting a knuckleball, Niekro said patience was a virtue and did, upon prodding, point out he had homered himself off fellow knuckleballer Charlie Hough when Hough was with Los Angeles.

Braves await Giants decision

Braves president Stan Kasten said the uncertainty over the Giants' possible move to St. Petersburg from San Francisco has created logistical problems for the other NL West teams.

The Braves can't book charter flights, hotel rooms or even issue a schedule until the Giants' dilemma has been solved. He hasn't said if the Braves support or oppose the move.

The proposed NL schedule for 1993 lists only "Giants" and is tentative because days off would have to be adjusted if another West Division team is located in the Eastern time zone.

Asked where the Giants will be in '93, Kasten said: "That's the least of my concerns. Four or five months is a long time. I'm sure someone will tell us which way we're going."

Deion defends decision

Boredom, not ego, motivated Deion Sanders' two-sport day.

"I'm a pinch-runner and a pinch-hitter, I'm not an everyday player," Sanders said. "If I was an everyday player, I don't think I would have chosen to do that."

Sanders, who played for the Atlanta Falcons in Miami on Sunday before returning to Pittsburgh, was not used by Braves manager Bobby Cox in Atlanta's 7-1 loss to the Pirates in Game 5.

Braves officials were angry Sanders violated their version of a mutual understanding, which general manager John Schuerholz said called for Sanders to be with the Braves "every minute, every day."

Sanders played a full game at right cornerback, returned kicks and even caught a 9-yard pass in the Falcons' 21-17 loss.

"I feel like I owe them the right to be out there," Sanders said. "I don't see how I can let 40-something other guys down, the football players, while I'm sitting on the bench for eight or nine innings."

Miscellany

The Pirates are trying to become the third team to overcome a 3-2 deficit and advance to the World Series. The 1987 Cardinals and the 1991 Braves (who rallied against the Pirates) also did it. . . . Ernie Johnson, who pitched for the Braves from 1950-58 and became a Braves broadcaster in 1962, threw out the first pitch Tuesday. Johnson pitched in the 1957 World Series for the Braves and had a 1.29 ERA.

_ TIMES WIRES

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