CLINE: Knucksie throws a strike for needy kids

Phil Niekro has signed more autographs than he can remember. The Hall of Famer and former Atlanta Braves standout enjoys interacting with his fans and appreciates that while it's old hat to him, it's a big deal to the people awaiting his signature.

That hits home to the old knuckleballer, who had never met a major leaguer until he became one. The Flowery Branch resident keeps that in mind each time he signs his name -- that it's his privilege as much or more so than the person asking for the autograph.

That mentality will be on display on Friday when Niekro kicks off the annual Venture Sports Shows Toys for Tots campaign at the Village Shoppes at Creekside in Lawrenceville, located at Ga. highways 120 and 316. From noon to 2 p.m., Niekro will sign autographs as part of the event led by Doug Reid.

"It's such a good cause," Niekro said of the event, in which fans bring unwrapped toys of at least $10 in value in exchange for tickets redeemable for autographs. "People get the chance to get an autograph and to walk away with a good feeling."

The event runs from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday through Sunday with 75 athletes scheduled to sign. There will also be a collectibles show going at the same time, giving fans a chance to shop for cards and other memorabilia in addition to collecting autographs. Reid said there will be 60 vendors on hand at the showroom, located next to Staples, including a company called Just Minors that will have Braves prospects Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman on hand to sign autographs as well.

It is the 11th year that Reid has run the event, which started when he ran his Venture Sports Shows out of what is now the Santa Fe Mall in Duluth. Reid had humble goals when he started more than a decade ago, but his toy drive as become the second largest private contributor in the state.

Reid said the toy drive has raised more than $2 million in toys over the past 10 years and that the goal is to raise $350,000 worth -- about 35,000 individual toys -- this year. He said the donations are needed more now than ever.

"I was at the (Toys for Tots) warehouse the other day, and for this time of year it's really bare," said Reid, who lives in Tucker. "We really need (the donations) to come in heavy over the next few weeks. With the economy the way it is, there are so many more people who need help."

Reid credits the athletes with helping his toy drive become so successful. In addition to Neikro, former Braves Otis Nixon, Chuck James, Zane Smith and Alejandro Pena will be on hand, as well as Nick Green, the former Duluth High standout. Former Atlanta Falcon William Andrews will also sign. A full list of athletes and times they will be signing is available at www.venturesports.org.

Niekro marvels at the time Reid puts into to making the toy drive a success, and said it's always an easy decision for him to participate.

"Christmas is for everyone, not just for people who can afford it," he said. "I've never been in that situation of not being able to afford a toy, but I know growing up there were plenty of times when I wondered how my parents could afford it."

E-mail Todd Cline at todd.cline@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Wednesdays.