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Pat Neshek’s soaring triumph tinged with sorrow

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MINNEAPOLIS — The most remarkable and wonderful part about the Pat Neshek story is that it isn’t one story. It is 10 different stories going over top of each other like different children’s hands working their way up the handle of a baseball bat in that game to decide who hits first. When Neshek starts crying for happiness as he talks about how unlikely and absurd it is, all of it, you are not quite sure which specific unlikely and absurd part he is thinking about.

For instance, he could be talking just about the thrill of being here, back in his hometown, at the unlikely age of 33 (almost 34) age in his first All-Star Game just a few miles away from where he grew up. That is story enough right there.

Then, he could just be talking about baseball. Pat Neshek loves baseball. No, really, he LOVES baseball. He reached into his pocket and pulls out … old baseball cards. There’s a Tony Oliva card. There’s a Juan Marichal card. There’s also a Sam McDowell card. Neshek heard McDowell might be here. He hopes to get the cards autographed for his collection.

See, Neshek is a huge baseball card collector. He’s trying to get the entire 1970 set autographed. You would think this is common among baseball players, but it really is not. It used to surprise me how few really big baseball fans are playing the game. For years, I would ask players to tell some story about their baseball fanhood. Finally, though, so many would shrug their shoulders whenever something about baseball history came up, or say something like, “I wasn’t that big a fan of any one team or player, I was too busy playing baseball,” that I finally stopped asking.

That’s not to say you have to be a big baseball fan to appreciate being in the All-Star Game … it’s a great professional moment. But I would guess being a fan, dreaming about this game, adds something. Neshek talks about wispy memories of the 1985 All-Star Game in Minneapolis, when he was just 5. He talks about vivid memories of a World Series parade when he saw Kirby Puckett and first dreamed of being a baseball player. So when he thinks about being in an All-Star Game parade this week and some kid maybe seeing him and dreaming … sure, the eyes get a little watery.

Then, the eyes also get a little watery when he thinks about where his career has been. He could have made the All-Star Game back in 2007. He was 26 years old then, and he was playing for his hometown Minnesota Twins, and at the All-Star break, he had a 1.70 ERA and the league was hitting .129 against him. He didn’t make the team; middle relievers rarely do. But he had a good career going. Neshek threw with a crazy sidearm angle that started low and ended high, but unlike most sidewinders, he could throw hard, and he dominated hitters.

Then, it all went bad. In 2008, after just 13 1/3 innings, he was shut down for the season because of a ligament tear in his elbow. He did not want to undergo Tommy John surgery and held off as long as he could. After the season ended, he finally relented and had the surgery and missed all of the 2009 season as well. Shortly into the 2010 season, he injured his middle finger and then got into a bit of a public spat with the Twins because he did not believe it was handled properly. He only pitched nine innings that year — that meant he had pitched just 22 innings in three years. After the season, the team he grew up loving put him on waivers, and he went to pitch in San Diego.

This was baseball as business, not as the game he grew up loving. That can be a shock, but you adjust or you drop out. Someone asked another Minnesota native — All-Star reliever Glen Perkins — if he wanted to be a starter when he first started in baseball. “Yeah, but I stunk at it,” he said. “And then I wanted to be a reliever.”

It didn’t work out for Neshek with the Padres, so he signed on with Baltimore. That didn’t work out either, he didn’t make the team, so he pitched for their Class AAA team for a while until Oakland traded for him. That was great. He liked Oakland a lot. He grew a beard because A’s GM Billy Beane told the team to do something fun. His fastball was more or less gone, but his slider had become a nice pitch. In his first full inning with the A’s, he struck out the side throwing sliders.

“Yeah,” his catcher Derek Norris said. “Let’s keep doing that.”

So Neshek pitched from the stretch, and he threw slider after slider for a year and a half in Oakland, and he pitched pretty well in limited time, but the truth is that people around baseball don’t have much faith in 30-something relievers who live and die with their sliders. When last season ended, he waited for teams to call. Well, he didn’t just wait — he called teams himself. Detroit? Not interested. Milwaukee? Barely interested. That was hard. “It would have been easy for me to quit,” he says.

Then, his father, Gene, offered a suggestion: Maybe he should go back to his full wind-up and try to find his fastball again. Hey, why not? Neshek tried it. He felt like the ball was popping pretty well. The Cardinals called and offered a chance … he told his agent that St. Louis was a waste of time, that the Cardinals bullpen was already overloaded. But St. Louis was the only one that offered a real opportunity so he went to camp and threw as hard as he could.

And … something crazy happened. That fastball — which had been stuck at 85 or 86 for years — now rushed in at 92 or 93 mph at times. That was interesting. His slider still fooled hitters. He somehow made the team. On April 11 against the Cubs, he came into a close game in the ninth and pitched a scoreless inning, striking out two. It was the first of what would be 22 consecutive appearances without allowing a run. On May 21st, his ERA dropped below 1.00. It has been there ever since.

“Our third All-Star,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said to the team after announcing that perennial stars Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright had made the team, “Is a first-time All-Star.” He then told everyone that Pat Neshek had made the All-Star team, and they all cheered wildly and stood up and patted him on the back. “It was such an amazing moment after everything I’ve been through,” Neshek says. “I wanted to cry.” He’s crying while talking about crying.

Only then, after all that, do you get to the most emotional story of all. In 2012, Pat and his wife, Stephanee, had their first child, a son they named Gehrig after, well, who else? Pat called it the happiest day of his life, as all first-time dads do.

Less than 24 hours after Gehrig was born, he stopped breathing — the agony was all-encompassing. The Nesheks have said they will never fully get over it. For more than a year, they could not even open their mail to see the thousands of cards and letters of support they received. It hurt too much. One of the most remarkable things about people, though, is their ability to keep going, to keep living, and earlier this year during spring training, the Nesheks had another son. They named him Hoyt after Hoyt Wilhelm — the Hall of Famer pitcher. He was born 11 days premature, and he was diagnosed with pneumonia.

“Scary,” is the only word Pat Neshek can think of to describe those early hours.

But Hoyt came through. Every day, all spring training, Pat would drive the 90 miles from their home in Melbourne, Fla., to the Cardinals’ spring training facility in Jupiter and back. He said the drive wasn’t a lot of fun. But he would say that he did a lot of thinking on those drives. He thought about baseball, of course. He thought about family. He thought about why he was still doing all this. He wonders if all that thinking might have something to do with the crazy success he’s had this season. Maybe he figured something out. Hey, it’s as good an explanation as anything else.

Last Sunday, the Neshek family — all the grandparents and cousins and the like — gathered in Milwaukee. On Friday night, Pat pitched a scoreless inning and was credited with a victory. Over the weekend, they all celebrated Hoyt. And on Sunday, Hoyt Neshek took his first airplane ride to Minnesota for his father’s first All-Star Game.

“Sorry I’m late,” Neshek said as he walked in for his press conference. “I was on daddy duty.” He then flashed the biggest smile in Minnesota. This was the happiest day of his life. Again. They’re all like that now.

Yordano Ventura and Jose Fernandez were two of the most promising arms in MLB

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JULY 3: Starting pitcher Yordano Ventura #30 of the Kansas City Royals throws a pitch in the first inning during a game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on July 3, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images)
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Baseball lost two incredible pitchers in the last four months, both to horrible and unforeseen tragedies. Jose Fernandez and Yordano Ventura were among the most talented and promising pitchers in MLB, two young arms that drew both accolades and criticism for their performance on the mound.

Ventura signed with the Royals in 2008, blazing through several tiers of their farm system before he was called up to replace an injured Danny Duffy in late 2013. He secured his rotation spot the following spring and finished a solid 2014 campaign with a 14-10 record, 3.20 ERA and 2.4 fWAR in 32 starts for the club. During the Royals’ World Series run later that year, Ventura dedicated his performance in Game 6 to Cardinals’ prospect Oscar Taveras, who was killed in a car accident in the Dominican Republic just two days earlier.

In four years with the Royals, Ventura pitched to a 38-31 record, 3.89 ERA and 6.5 fWAR. While his command and overall production rate waned, bottoming out in 2016 with a 4.45 ERA and 1.85 SO/BB rate, his dynamic pitch repertoire still kept him front and center in the Royals’ pitching staff. He brandished an electric fastball that, at its lowest point, hovered around 96.6 m.p.h. and, at its best, topped out around 102.6 m.p.h.

Like Ventura, Fernandez made an instant impression in the major league circuit. He earned Rookie of the Year distinctions in 2013 after delivering a 12-6 record, 2.19 ERA and 4.1 fWAR with the Marlins. Despite undergoing Tommy John surgery in his sophomore year, he recovered to take on a full workload in 2016 and stunned the league with a 16-8 record, 2.89 ERA, career-high 253 strikeouts and 6.1 fWAR.

Ventura developed a reputation for brushing back hitters, which escalated in some cases to volatile bench-clearing brawls. In 2015, he was ejected for three altercations in three consecutive games and served a seven-game suspension. Halfway through the 2016 season, he earned another eight-game suspension after plunking the Orioles’ Manny Machado in the back with a 99 m.p.h. heater. Some speculated that his aggressive behavior on the mound was excused — or, at least, made more palatable — by his talent and track record, while others called for a more heavy-handed approach from the league.

Fernandez, too, found himself at the center of speculation after reports emerged that painted the 24-year-old as a “clubhouse difficulty,” citing attitude problems that damaged relationships between the pitcher and Marlins players and staff. On the field, he was occasionally chastised for failing to adhere to some of baseball’s unwritten rules, most notably when he showed his elation after hitting his first career home run off of the Braves’ Mike Minor in 2013.

It’s impossible to predict where Fernandez and Ventura’s careers would have taken them. We mourn them not for their actions on the mound or their potential as star pitchers, however, but for their inherent value as people who were loved and respected by their families and teams. Major League Baseball will be worse off for their loss.

Yordano Ventura killed in an auto accident

CLEVELAND, OH -  JUNE 2:  Starting pitcher Yordano Ventura #30 of the Kansas City Royals jokes with teammates as he walks off the field after the fifth inning against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field on June 2, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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UPDATE, 12:07 p.m. EDT: The Royals have confirmed reports of Yordano Ventura’s death with an official statement. No further details pertaining to the accident have been divulged.

Terrible, terrible news: Christian Moreno of ESPN reports that Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura has been killed in an automobile accident in the Dominican Republic. His death has been confirmed by police. He was only 25 years-old. There are as of yet no details about the accident.

Ventura was a four-year veteran, having debuted in 2013 but truly bursting onto the scene for the Royals in 2014. That year he went 14-10 with a 3.20 ERA in 183 innings, ascending to the national stage along with the entire Royals team with some key performances in that year’s ALDS and World Series. The following year Ventura won 13 games for the World Champion Royals and again appeared in the playoffs and World Series.

Ventura was often in the middle of controversy — he found himself in several controversies arising out of his habit of hitting and brushing back hitters — but he was an undeniably electric young talent who was poised to anchor the Royals rotation for years to come. His loss, like that of Jose Fernandez just this past September, is incalculable to both his team, his fans and to Major League Baseball as a whole.

Our thoughts go out to his family, his friends, his teammates and his fans.