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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.

Video: Holliday’s home run a fitting goodbye for Cardinals

ST. LOUIS, MO - SEPTEMBER 30: Matt Holliday #7 of the St. Louis Cardinals hits a solo home run against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the seventh inning at Busch Stadium on September 30, 2016 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
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If tonight was his last night in a Cardinals uniform, Matt Holliday made the most of it.

After sitting out most of the second half with a fractured thumb, the 36-year-old was activated from the disabled list on Friday and slotted in as a pinch-hitter during the seventh inning of the Cardinals’ 7-0 shutout. What happened next could hardly have elicited more sentiment had it been scripted:

The solo shot was Holliday’s first home run as a pinch-hitter, and his first home run of any kind since August 9. The triumphant moment might have been the last of its kind in St. Louis, as it was reported earlier today that the Cardinals do not plan to exercise Holliday’s option in 2017.

Prior to the game, the left fielder released a statement in which he expressed his gratitude for the past eight seasons with the Cardinals’ organization:

I would like to thank Mr. Dewitt, Mo and the entire ownership group for the opportunity to play for the St. Louis Cardinals.

I am proud of what we have accomplished on and off the field during the past seven years. I have also been humbled by the incredible support and participation in our Homers for Health program.

It has been an honor to play in front of such great fans and for such a historic organization. I can honestly say it has been a dream come true.

While I’m disappointed this could be it here in St. Louis, I understand that it might be time to move on.

I’d like to express my love and admiration for Tony, Mike and all of the coaches and staff that I have had the pleasure to do life with these past seven-plus years.

The most emotional part of this is my teammates and the relationships I’ve built with some of these guys over the years. Particularly, Adam and Yadi, to be considered part of the core with two of the finest human beings I’ve ever known.

Finally, I’m eternally thankful for the Lord bringing me to the city of St. Louis in August of 2008. Lots of cool stuff has happened since then. On behalf of my wife Leslee and our children Jackson, Ethan, Gracyn and Reed: Thank you!

Angel Pagan body-slammed a fan on the field

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - SEPTEMBER 13: Angel Pagan #16 of the San Francisco Giants argues with umpire Jerry Meals #41 after a called third strike during the first inning against the San Diego Padres at AT&T Park on September 13, 2016 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images)
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Don’t interrupt Angel Pagan in the middle of a wild card race. Better yet, don’t interrupt him at all.

A fan learned that the hard way during Friday’s Giants-Dodgers game. In the fourth inning, a group of fans ran onto the field with white flowers in their hands, presumably to hand to Giants players. According to eyewitness accounts, one player was reprimanded by San Francisco starter Madison Bumgarner, while Buster Posey fended off another.

Angel Pagan, however, took more extreme and inventive measures.

On-field security started closing in on the fan as he approached Pagan, but didn’t appear to pick up the pace until the outfielder dropped him on the field.

Vin Scully, who was wrapping up the third-to-last game of his career, provided play-by-play of the incident.

A couple of kids, trying to steal a moment, slow down the game, running on the field and just taking a big moment on the big stage. They’ve got one of them in right field, and the other one is nailed down by Pagan in left field. And the crowd loved that! They went up to do something with Angel Pagan, but [Pagan] grabbed him and slammed him to the ground, and they’re taking him off the field. […] Doesn’t that bring you back to the ’60s, and the flower children? Oh what, you don’t remember the ’60s? Okay.

The next time you want to send a message to a player, maybe try a tweet (throw in a flower emoji or two if you feel so inclined). Just don’t make a showy display of affection in the middle of a game. It’s bound to go badly, at least where Angel Pagan is concerned.