ST. LOUIS – He throws weird, like some strange mechanical sidearm Frisbee launcher. He’s suffered major injuries that have sidelined him for months at a time. Three times, his teams have lost faith in him and told him he’s through. He’s been told he doesn’t throw hard enough. He’s the only All-Star in Tuesday’s game who had to beg for a minor league contract last spring from a team he didn’t really want to sign with, “and if you told me I might make the Triple-A All-Star team, I’d have taken it.”
Those facts alone make Pat Neshek — homegrown Minnesotan, former Twin and, this season as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals, the most effective relief pitcher in baseball — the most implausible comeback story of the year. But there’s another even more compelling side to his journey. A story of personal loss, fear and fatherhood.
“The baseball stuff, I’ve dealt with skeptics my whole career,” the 33-year-old Brooklyn Park native and Park Center High grad said with a shrug. That included his hometown team; the Twins put him on waivers and let the Padres take him for nothing in 2011. “The last two years were a million times harder than that. But I realized, you have to get over the pain and keep going.”
He wasn’t always sure he would, not after the worst day of his life, which came exactly one day after the best. He was at home in Melbourne, Fla., on Oct. 3, 2012, still amped by the thrill of witnessing his son Gehrig John Neshek’s birth the day before, the same day his team, the Oakland A’s, clinched the AL West. He had dozens of photos of him holding the baby, smiling like a lunatic, his personal and professional life at its peak.
Then his wife, Stephanee, called from the hospital. She could barely get the words out. “Gehrig stopped breathing.”
She had just given him a bath, and was rocking him in her arms while visiting with friends, when his heart stopped. He lived just 23 hours, seemingly normal and healthy. “I’m glad I was with him, at least,” Stephanee said. “That he wasn’t alone in the nursery bassinet.”
Doctors suspect he died of an infection they thought had been treated, but they don’t know for sure. It was impossible to comprehend, let alone explain.
“It still seems like it’s not real, like it happened to someone else,” Neshek said.
He and Stephanee spent days in shock, surrounded by family. A’s general manager Billy Beane called to say Neshek’s teammates would be wearing patches with “GJN” on their uniforms during the playoffs, and that if he didn’t feel up to returning to the team, everyone would understand. The pitcher thought about it, but ultimately decided, “I can sit here in this house and just think about [the tragedy] nonstop, or I could go and honor Gehrig by playing.”
He memorably pitched out of a seventh-inning jam in Game 1 of the playoff series against Detroit, and walked off the field pointing to the sky and touching the patch. The baseball world grieved with him, but eventually the attention went away, leaving the Nesheks to live with their anguish in private.
Counseling helped, said Stephanee, but there were days she couldn’t face getting out of bed.
“We’d get into all these little arguments, and then all of a sudden, we’re talking about Gehrig,” Pat added. “There was a lot of depression. One day, I blew up and said, ‘You need to get over it.’ And that’s just the worst thing you could say, because we’ll never really be over it. So it was a long winter, a tough one.”
Spring arrived, and the couple headed to Arizona for training camp. With the support of friends, each day got a little easier, life felt a little more familiar. It wasn’t long before they found themselves talking about having another baby.
“Oh God, yes. Oh God, yes,” Neshak said, when asked if he was afraid. “You don’t know what’s going to happen, and if something bad happens, you don’t know if you can handle it. It’s scary, because I didn’t want to feel that way again.”
He wasn’t feeling particularly good on the baseball field, either. Neshek became overdependent upon his slider, throwing it to lefthanders 95 percent of the time. His effectiveness was inconsistent, and he felt marginalized, given only 40 innings all season, rarely crucial ones. At the end of the season, the A’s decided not to offer him another contract, and he became a free agent with his perceived value near an all-time low.
His agent searched for another job, but found few takers. The Mets told him he doesn’t throw hard enough. The Cubs seemed interested, then stopped calling. The Brewers were willing to take him, but only for their minor league camp, no major league tryout attached.
A week before camp opened, the couple walked their three dachshunds on the beach and “he said, ‘You know, I don’t know if I should keep pitching,’ ” Stephanee recalled. “That’s the only time I heard him have doubts.”
Finally, Neshek’s agent lined up a minor league contract, with an invitation to major league camp — but with the one team Neshek believed offered the least opportunity. The Cardinals are the defending National League champs, in part because of their strong bullpen. “I thought, ‘I’m going to fire my agent. This is the best situation you could get for me?’ ” he said. “ ‘They’ve got five guys throwing 100 mph. They’re not going to want me.’ ”
Camp was difficult. Neshek wouldn’t leave Stephanee by herself during the last month of her pregnancy. He drove the 90 miles from Melbourne to Cardinals camp in Jupiter every single day, running his decade-old Pontiac Firebird so hard, he blew a head gasket twice. He nearly drove himself to exhaustion, too — yet pitched so well, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny decided to give him a roster spot.
Then came March 13 — and all the emotion, the dread, came rushing back. Stephanee delivered Hoyt Robert Neshek by C-section, but there were complications. The baby, who looked almost identical to Gehrig, was born with pneumonia, and jaundice, and most worrisome, a pocket of air outside his lungs that doctors feared might require risky surgery.
When Stephanee was handed Hoyt for the first time, tubes and monitors attached to his body, “my brain started playing tricks on me. I felt like I was holding Gehrig again, and I just lost it,” she said. “I started screaming and crying, until the nurse had to take him.”
But in three days Hoyt was out of danger. He turned 4 months old on Sunday, and he’s already over 20 pounds.
“It was pretty scary, and I was worried for Stephanee,” Neshek said. “If something had happened, I would have shut it down. I wouldn’t be playing baseball.”
Now, he’s not only playing, he’s become the most reliable setup man in baseball. He’s 4-0, hasn’t allowed a run in more than a month, and only one since April 9, dragging his ERA to a big-league-best 0.70 ERA.
“I don’t know where we’d be without him,” said Matheny, who surprised his setup man by selecting him to the NL All-star squad.
Here’s where Neshek will be on Tuesday: standing along the third-base line at Target Field, a ballpark he once called home, a park where his brother Paul works on the grounds crew, just a short commute from the suburban neighborhood where they grew up. He’ll listen for his name along with the other National League All-Stars, and he’ll tip his Cardinals cap to the cheers of the Minnesotans who remember and appreciate his work as a relief pitcher for the Twins.
Yet in that brief moment atop the baseball world, acknowledged as one of the very best to play the game he loves, Neshek already realizes that his mind will be somewhere else.
“I know,” he said, “that I’ll be thinking of Gehrig.”