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.

Free agents who sign with new teams are not disloyal

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Most mornings my local newspaper is pretty predictable.

I know, when I navigate to its home page, that I’ll find about eleventeen stories about Ohio State football, even if it is not football season (especially if it’s not football season, actually), part 6 of an amazingly detailed 8-part investigation into a thing that is super important but which no one reads because it has nothing to do with Ohio State football and, perhaps, a handful of write-ups of stories that went viral online six days previously and have nothing to do with anything that matters.

Local print news is doing great, everyone.

I did, however, get a surprise this morning. A story about baseball! A baseball story that was not buried seven clicks into the sports section, but one that was surfaced onto the front page of the website!  The story was about Michael Brantley signing with the Astros.

Normally I’d be dead chuffed! But then I saw something which kinda irked me. Check out the headline:

Is Michael Brantley “leaving” the Indians? I don’t think so. He’s a free agent signing with a baseball team. He’s no more “leaving” the Indians than you are “leaving” an employer who laid you off to take a job at one of its competitors. This is especially true given that the Indians made no effort whatsoever to sign him. Indeed, they didn’t even give him a qualifying offer, making it very clear as of November 2 that they had no intention of bringing him back. Yet, there’s the headline: “Michael Brantley leaves Indians.”

To be clear, apart from the headline, the article is unobjectionable in any way. It merely recounts Ken Rosenthal’s report about Brantley signing with the Astros and does not make any claim or implication that Brantley was somehow disloyal or that Indians fans should be upset at him.

I do wish, though, that editors would not use this kind of construction, even in headlines, because even in today’s far more savvy and enlightened age, it encourages some bad and outmoded views of how players are expected to interact with teams.

Since the advent of free agency players have often been criticized as greedy or self-centered for signing contracts with new teams. Indeed, they are often cast as disloyal in some way for leaving the team which drafted or developed them. It’s less the case now than it used to be, but there are still a lot of fans who view a player leaving via free agency as some kind of a slap in the face, especially if he joins a rival. Meanwhile, when a team decides to move on from a player, either releasing him or, as was the case with the Indians and Brantley, making no effort to bring him back, it’s viewed as a perfectly defensible business decision. There was no comparable headline, back in early November, that said “Indians dump Brantley.”

Make no mistake: it may very well turn out to be a quite reasonable business decision for Cleveland to move on from Brantley. Maybe they know things about him we don’t. Maybe they simply know better about how he’ll do over the next year than the Astros do. I in no way intend for this little rant to imply that the Indians owed Brantley any more than he owed the Indians once their business arrangement came to an end. They don’t.

But I do suspect that there are still a decent number fans out there who view a free agent leaving his former team as some sort of betrayal. Maybe not Brantley, but what if Bryce Harper signs with the Phillies? What if Kris Bryant walks and joins the Cardinals when he reaches free agency? Fans may, in general, be more enlightened now than they used to be, but even a little time on talk radio or in comments sections reveals that a number of them view ballplayers exercising their bargained-for rights as “traitors.” Or, as it’s often written, “traders.” I don’t care for that whole dynamic.

Maybe this little Michael Brantley headline in a local paper that doesn’t cover all that much baseball is unimportant in the grand scheme of things, but it’s an example of how pervasive that unfortunate dynamic is. It gives fans, however tacitly, license to continue to think of players as bad people for exercising their rights. I don’t think that belief will ever completely disappear — sports and irrationality go hand-in-hand — but I’d prefer it if, like teams, athletes are likewise given an understanding nod when they make a business decision. The best way to ensure that is to make sure that such decisions are not misrepresented.