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.

Lou Whitaker snubbed from the Hall of Fame again

Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
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Long time Tigers second baseman Lou Whitaker has long been one of baseball history’s most underrated players. He and Hall of Fame shortstop Alan Trammell formed one of the best up-the-middle combos ever, teammates since Whitaker’s debut in 1977 to his final year in 1995.

Trammell is actually a great jumping-off point to support Whitaker’s candidacy. Here are their career counting stats:

  • Whitaker: .276/.363/.426, 420 doubles, 65 triples, 244 homers, 1084 RBI, 1386 runs, 143 stolen bases, 1197 walks (9967 plate appearances)
  • Trammell: .285/.352/.415, 415 doubles, 55 triples, 185 homers, 1003 RBI, 1231 runs, 236 stolen bases, 850 walks (9376 plate appearances)

Whitaker also had slightly more Wins Above Replacement over his career according to Baseball Reference, besting Trammell 75.1 to 70.7. FanGraphs’ version of WAR puts both players slightly lower but with Whitaker still in the lead, 68.1 to 63.7.

Trammell, like Whitaker, did not make the Hall of Fame through initial eligibility on the ballot voted on by members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, beginning five years after their retirement. Trammell was elected two years ago on the Modern Era ballot. Whitaker fell off the ballot in his only year of eligibility, earning just 2.9 percent of the vote in 2001. Whitaker was again snubbed on Sunday night, receiving just six of the 12 votes necessary for induction. Trammell became eligible on the BBWAA ballot in 2002 and had a 15-year run, with his support running as far down as 13.4 percent in 2007 and peaking at 40.9 percent in his final year in 2016.

Trammell and Whitaker critics cited things like never leading the league in any important categories and never winning an MVP Award as reasons why they shouldn’t be enshrined. That last reason, of course, ignores that both contributed to the Tigers winning the World Series in 1984, but I digress.

Trammell should have been elected to the Hall of Fame on the BBWAA ballot. And, since the distinction matters to so many people, he should have been inducted on the first ballot. Among Hall of Fame shortstops (at least 50 percent of their games at the position), Trammell has the eighth-highest WAR among 21 eligible players. He has ever so slightly more WAR than Barry Larkin (70.4), who made it into the Hall of Fame in his third year of eligibility with 86.4 percent of the vote.

Now, what about Whitaker? Among Hall of Fame second basemen (at least 50 percent of games at the position), Whitaker’s 75.1 WAR would rank sixth among 20 eligible second basemen. The only second basemen ahead of him are Rogers Hornsby (127.0), Eddie Collins (124.0), Nap Lajoie (107.4), Joe Morgan (100.6), and Charlie Gehringer (80.7). Whitaker outpaces such legendaries as Ryne Sandberg (68.0), Roberto Alomar (67.1), and Craig Biggio (65.5). Sandberg made it into the Hall in his third year on the ballot; Alomar his second; Biggio his third.

Among the players on the 2001 BBWAA ballot, the only player with more career WAR than Whitaker was Bert Blyleven (94.4), who eventually made it into the Hall of Fame. Dave Winfield (64.2) and Kirby Puckett (51.1) were elected that year. Also receiving hefty support that year were Gary Carter (70.1 WAR), Jim Rice (47.7), Bruce Sutter (24.1), and Goose Gossage (41.2) and each would eventually make the Hall of Fame.

WAR is not, by any means, a perfect stat, so the WAR argument may not resonate with everyone. Dating back to 1871, there have been only 66 players who hit at least 400 doubles and 200 home runs while stealing 100 bases. The only second basemen (same 50 percent stipulation) to do that are Whitaker, Hornsby, Morgan, Sandberg, Alomar, Biggio, Chase Utley, and Ian Kinsler. Additionally, Whitaker drew more walks than strikeouts over his career, 1197 to 1099. The only second basemen to do that while hitting at least 200 career homers are Whitaker, Morgan, Hornsby, Bobby Doerr, and Joe Gordon.

Whitaker was not without accolades: he won the 1978 AL Rookie of the Year Award. He was a five-time All-Star and took home four Silver Sluggers along with three Gold Gloves to boot. Trammell took home a similar amount of hardware: though he never won a Rookie of the Year Award, he did make the All-Star team six times. He went on to win four Gold Gloves and three Silver Sluggers.

In a just world, Whitaker would have been on the ballot for the then-maximum 15 years. In a sentimentally just world, he would have gone in side-by-side with Trammell in 2002. Whitaker’s candidacy certainly shouldn’t have fallen to the Modern Era ballot, and it shouldn’t have been further fumbled by a committee that gave him as many votes as Steve Garvey.