Fastballs, faith and family: Pat Neshek on Father's Day

The house is a collection of collections, starting with the jerseys. Fourteen of them, to be exact. All the way from high school through the big leagues and everywhere in between, each of them framed and overlooking the staircase that leads to the second story from the kitchen.

Just off the back of the kitchen, in the family room, there's another collection, a cluster of framed photos hanging on an otherwise stark wall. One is of a glowing mother kissing her newborn. Another shows a beaming father kissing the same infant. A third is the baby by himself. In each shot, Gehrig Neshek is one day old, just as he is in the fourth and final piece in the series, a photo of father, mother and son.

Then there are the baseballs, Lord knows how many. Locked in a safe is one signed by Babe Ruth. On a shelf in the family room are two more, each containing a tiny black footprint taken from Gehrig the day he was born.

But the most priceless baseball in Pat Neshek's collection -- the most precious object in the entire house -- sits on the entertainment center in the master bedroom and has a rubber stopper on the bottom. Tucked inside it are Gehrig's ashes.

The journeyman reliever sits in the skipper's office, his face flush with disappointment. He's been lights-out in this 2012 spring training, but baseball is a numbers game. He'll start in Norfolk, Virginia, playing Triple-A ball. "You'll be back soon," Orioles manager Buck Showalter tells him. The journeyman believes him. Believes him so much that he doesn't even bother getting an apartment in Norfolk. Instead, he uses Priceline.com. His wife, who is three months pregnant with their first child, is staying at their Melbourne, Florida, home for the duration of the season. A hotel will do just fine, thanks.

Before the Norfolk Tides' first homestand, Neshek books a four-star hotel. After all, it's only a matter of time before he gets called up. The next couple of homestands, it's three stars. When June rolls around, he's still stuck in Norfolk, 800 miles from his wife and unborn child, Pricelining one-star dives for 30 bucks a night.

For the first time since shredding his elbow back in '08, Neshek feels like his mojo is back. The velocity is there. The K's are there. During one two-month stretch as Norfolk's closer, he goes 16 straight appearances without allowing a run. Still, the phone never rings. I got something here, he thinks, but nobody sees it.

It's the final series of the 2012 regular season, just hours before the start of a three-game set against the first-place Texas Rangers. The pitcher squirms in the general manager's office, uncertain of how to deliver the news. "My wife's pregnant," he says. "She's about to have the baby." He tells the GM about the headaches and the blurred vision she's been having and how she's been diagnosed with pre-eclampsia. He asks to leave the team immediately.

Under normal circumstances, it would be a no-brainer. But these are not normal circumstances: With a win in the opener, Oakland can clinch a playoff spot. Billy Beane, the controversial and obsessive subject of "Moneyball," is the GM. "We need you tonight," Beane says.

Truth is, the A's have needed Neshek a lot down the stretch. He's pitched three of the past four days and appeared in nearly half the team's games since the trade from Baltimore in early August. Neshek stares at the floor, conflicted. As badly as he wants to push the issue, he knows he's something of a baseball vagabond -- the A's are his fourth club in two years -- and would be better served holding his tongue. So he clenches his jaw and listens, first as Beane scolds him for not revealing the pregnancy earlier, then as the GM begrudgingly grants him permission to fly back East. But not until after the game.

With the smell of champagne still in his hair -- the A's clinch the playoff spot with a 4-3 win in which he doesn't pitch -- Neshek hops a predawn flight to Orlando, where his father, Gene, waits for him. On the hourlong drive south to Melbourne, the two talk about what fathers and sons often talk about: baseball. They talk about the playoffs and about the once-in-a-career clubhouse chemistry Pat has stumbled upon in Oakland. They talk about the impending arrival of Gene's first grandchild, whom Pat and Stephanee will call Gehrig, after the legendary Yankees first baseman. They arrive at the hospital just before sunset, just in time for Pat to witness the arrival of an 8-pound, 5-ounce baby boy. Just past midnight, after snapping a few photos, fetching Dunkin' Donuts for his wife and holding Gehrig in his arms, a bleary-eyed Pat -- he's been up for two days straight -- goes home and crashes.

He returns to the hospital the next morning and spends a few hours there before leaving around noon so that Stephanee, who barely slept overnight, can take a much-needed nap. He kills time by walking the dogs and tuning in to the A's-Rangers game. It's the final day of the season, and the two teams are now in a flat-footed tie for first. Whoever wins game No. 162 will be the AL West champion. In the fourth inning, right after Neshek watches Rangers center fielder Josh Hamilton drop a routine fly ball that would've been the third out but instead breaks the game wide open and essentially hands the A's the division title, the phone rings. It's Stephanee. "You gotta get down here right now," she says. "He stopped breathing."

Stephanee and her friend Robin are sitting in the maternity ward, eating veggie burritos, talking about motherhood. "Does he always look that yellow?" Robin asks. Stephanee looks down at Gehrig and notices he isn't moving. Not responding. So she shakes him gently. Still nothing. "Something's wrong with my baby!" she screams, as she runs to the nurse's desk just across the hall. Before she knows it, Gehrig is plucked from her arms and whisked away to the nursery. She follows closely behind, but when she tries to go through the double doors, a barricade of nurses stops her. "That's the mom," one of the nurses shouts. "Don't let her in there!"

As he speeds over the causeway, Pat chokes the steering wheel and waits for an update from his wife. But his cell sits there, silent. When he finally gets to the hospital and finds Stephanee, she is sitting on the edge of her bed, shaking. He sits beside his wife and puts his arm around her. "What happened?" he asks.

"Pat Neshek opens a small closet and sees a plastic bag containing a tiny Oakland A's onesie with a matching knit hat and booties. He grabs the bag and wheels his wife out of the room. They leave the flowers. They leave the balloons. They leave their son."

His heart pounding as he listens to his wife finish the story, Pat springs up and rushes down the hall to the nursery windows, where the shades have always been open. Where just yesterday he watched Gehrig sleep peacefully. Only now the shades are drawn shut. Every last one of them. When Pat gets back to the room, Stephanee is where he left her, on the edge of the bed facing the door. Behind her, sitting in chairs on the other side of the bed, are Pat's parents. He sits next to his wife once more and waits. A couple of minutes later, just after 6 p.m., a doctor enters the room, accompanied by five nurses. They stand in a line, shoulder to shoulder, facing the bed. An older nurse -- Pat recognizes her as the one who took care of his wife earlier that morning -- is shaking her head and holding back tears. The doctor, a middle-aged woman whom neither Pat nor Stephanee has met before, speaks: "We tried to resuscitate him, but it was too late," she says flatly. "He didn't make it." Pat turns and looks at Stephanee. Her head is tilted toward the floor, and she's bawling. As he reaches out to embrace her, he starts sobbing too. Behind him, he hears his father shrieking, "Noooo!"

A social worker comes in and asks if they want to say goodbye. Pat walks down the cold corridor, holding his wife's hand tightly. When they reach the room where Gehrig is, they look in and see a nurse cradling their son. The sight of his ashen face and sunken eyes is more than Stephanee can bear. "I can't do this!" she wails. She drops her husband's hand, turns around and runs back to her room. Pat stands there a moment, not knowing what to do, then opens the door and holds his baby boy for the last time.

Back in the room, Pat sits, numb, and watches his wife sign an autopsy consent form. It's been only a few hours since she filled out the paperwork for Gehrig's social security card. He hears a staffer come in and tell Stephanee, who endured 13 hours of labor, that she's welcome to stay as long as she likes. No thank you, she says. They need to leave. Need to be anywhere but here. So they pack up. Pat opens a small closet and sees a plastic bag containing a tiny Oakland A's onesie with a matching knit hat and booties. He grabs the bag and wheels his wife out of the room. They leave the flowers. They leave the balloons. They leave their son.

The bereaved baseball player arrives in Detroit, just before Game 1 of the team's AL Division Series, to find every member of his surrogate family wearing a black, circular GJN patch on his right uniform sleeve. Gehrig John Neshek, says the birth certificate. And the death certificate.

"We probably won't use you today," manager Bob Melvin tells the reliever during pregame warmups. That evening, as the brisk northern night darkens, Neshek sits on a cold metal bench in the visitors' bullpen, wearing out a wad of Bazooka bubble gum and wondering if the phone will ring. In the seventh inning, it does. Just like that, Neshek is up and throwing. Holy s---, he thinks, I'm actually gonna pitch.

Next thing he knows, he's standing atop the mound in front of 43,000 screaming fans, numbed by adrenaline. He retires both batters he faces; and as he walks off the hill, Neshek barely knows where he is. Oh yeah, he thinks to himself, we lost our baby. He points to the sky and touches his glove to the patch on his shoulder.

The autopsy report cites "heart failure" as the cause of death, but according to Neshek, medical experts who review the records suggest the hospital might have been negligent -- that the facts don't quite add up. The rushed autopsy papers and missing placenta. That Stephanee tested positive for Group B strep, a bacterial infection that can affect both mother and child, but was given the wrong antibiotic, thereby exposing Gehrig to the infection during the 12 hours after Stephanee's water broke. That infection, the experts say, ultimately could be what stopped the baby's heart.

After Gehrig's death, Stephanee grieves by seeing a psychologist and forming a bond with another woman who recently lost an infant. Pat turns inward, losing himself in his lifelong passion: collecting. Instead of the one or two hours a day he usually spends with his baseball cards in the offseason, it's more like four or five. He zones out on eBay and works on building his prized 1970 Topps set, the one he started collecting in 2009, the one that's rated a 9.42 out of 10 (best in the world) and features a second-season Nolan Ryan card worth 30 grand. He leaves the house infrequently because when he does, all he sees are strollers. He doesn't drink or smoke. Instead he uses a plain green plastic binder, the one that houses his precious '70s set, to dull the pain of that first holiday season, when there's no tree and no presents and, wouldn't you know it, parents with a newborn sitting right behind the Nesheks at church on Christmas Eve.

The following season in Oakland, Neshek finds himself in a flat spin. He's fallen in love with his slider and throws it almost exclusively. Eventually, the scouting report is out. Hitters know what's coming and react accordingly. He thinks back to the beginning of his career, with the Twins, when the heater was his primary weapon. When his low-90s fastball played more like high-90s thanks to an unorthodox sidearm delivery -- Neshek's college coach still calls him a mechanical train wreck -- that baffled hitters from day one. Neshek remembers how, in 2006, he set an MLB record for most strikeouts in his first 100 batters (38), only to rupture an elbow ligament two years later. He recalls returning in 2010 after a 17-month recovery from Tommy John surgery to find that his velocity had dropped nearly 10 miles an hour. Three years later, he still has no faith in his heat. No faith in anything, really.

As little faith as Neshek has in his fastball, the A's come to have even less faith in him. According to Baseball Reference's Average Leverage Index (aLI), whereby a normal relief pitching situation is assigned a value of 1.0 (closers who throw high-tension innings at the end of the game typically come in anywhere between 1.5 and 2.0), Neshek's aLI of 0.342 is MLB's lowest in 2013. In other words, no team in baseball has less faith in any pitcher than Oakland has in Pat Neshek.

Not surprisingly, Neshek has trouble finding work after the 2013 season. "I think I might be done," the pitcher tells his wife one morning while they're out in Melbourne walking the dogs along a quiet street with no sidewalks. Slender palm trees wrapped in Christmas lights line the way. It's January, and Stephanee, pregnant again, is starting to show.

In the three months since the season ended, the Brewers are the only team that has called, and their offer is borderline insulting: a minor league deal for $15,000 a month. "It's just not worth it anymore," Pat tells Stephanee.

But in late January, when the Cardinals call with a spring training invitation, he reconsiders. He knows there's little to no chance of a pitcher like him -- a freak show sidearmer who could maybe touch 90 mph with his fastball if a gale-force wind blows in from center field -- cracking the defending champs' roster. That is, if he even has the courage to throw the fastball.

But a spring training invite is a spring training invite. Better yet, Neshek also knows that because the Cardinals train in Jupiter, Florida -- just 90 minutes south of Melbourne -- he won't have to be away from Stephanee during her last trimester. He demands a couple of opt-out dates. If he doesn't make the big club, he won't spend another season in the minors. He waits a couple of weeks, just in case anyone else calls. No one does. So on Feb. 6, 2014, six days before pitchers and catchers report, Neshek signs with St. Louis. On the first day of live batting practice, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny stands behind the backstop and watches as hitter after hitter flails at Neshek's train wreck cheese. "They can't pick up your fastball," Matheny says. The manager is so surprised that he walks out from behind the backstop and steps into the box himself -- he needs to check out Neshek's fastball firsthand. After watching a few deliveries whiz by, he shakes his head and smiles in disbelief. "Jesus," he says, "you keep throwing like this and I'll use the crap out of you."

In early March, smack dab in the middle of an audition for a job he thinks he has no business getting, Neshek leaves the team to be with his wife. Stephanee isn't due until April, but she's had another rough pregnancy. Once again, she's pre-eclamptic. The headaches and blurred vision have returned. She has gained 12 pounds in a week. And now she's about to have a C-section three weeks early.

"Take as much time as you need," Matheny tells Neshek. GM John Mozeliak says the same thing. Both of them know the family history. They know about Gehrig. As for Neshek, he thinks he'll be gone one day, maybe two. Be there for the birth, make sure everything's OK, then back to baseball. An aging journeyman on the outside looking in, he can't afford to be scarcer than that. And besides, his wife will be in good hands. Stephanee will give birth at a big Orlando hospital this time around.

Hoyt Robert Neshek is born on Thursday, March 13, with an air pocket outside his lungs. A pneumothorax, the doctors call it. Between that and the pneumonia, the doctors have no choice but to send him directly to the neonatal intensive care unit. For three hours after the delivery, the Nesheks don't see their child. This can't be happening, Pat thinks. Not again.

Around midnight, when a nurse finally comes to escort Pat to the NICU, it's almost too much to bear. Hoyt's little body hooked up to all kinds of wires, a heater keeping him warm. Pat touches his baby boy ever so gently. Then he snaps a picture. The next day, he checks on his son every two hours, like clockwork. "He's a fighter," another nurse says. Pat thinks, A fighter? Holy s---, this is serious. Anxious about missing too much time at work, he calls Mozeliak. "Don't worry about baseball," the GM tells the pitcher. "Just worry about being a father."

Finally, on Sunday night, Hoyt turns the corner. The next day, Neshek returns to the team. Two weeks later, the Cardinals break camp. On the way to St. Louis, they stop in Memphis to play one final spring training game against their Triple-A club. Neshek assumes he'll be one of the final cuts and will be asked to start the season in the minors. But with a bunch of over-the-top flamethrowers already in the bullpen, the Cardinals like that Neshek gives them a different look. What was Oakland's trash is now the Cardinals' treasure. "We were hoping to catch lightning in a bottle," Mozeliak says. "And we did."

Neshek starts 2014 without a clearly defined role. He pitches when the Cards are ahead; he pitches when they're behind. Sometimes he works the sixth inning, other times he works the seventh or eighth. He even finishes a handful of games. But no matter when or where Matheny uses him, Neshek steamrolls: Through May, he allows just 10 hits in 24 2/3 innings with an absurd 27-3 K/BB ratio. By the time June rolls around, he's an eighth-inning staple. A month later, just shy of his 34th birthday, he's named an All-Star for the first time in his career. In a matter of months, he's gone from baseball's most forgotten mop-up man to its most dominant setup man.

In his hometown of Minneapolis, Neshek stands on the mound in the fifth inning of the Midsummer Classic and looks up and into the crowd. He spots his wife and baby boy and nods his head, marveling at how he arrived at this All-Star Game appearance, at how the fastball has come back to him, at how the low-70s changeup has been confounding lefties again, at how he's winning late-inning battles against veteran stars such as Andrew McCutchen and Jonathan Lucroy with first place on the line. At how his son has brought a different kind of perspective to his pitching -- the kind that comes from being a father.

"Hoyt was a huge reason I was so successful," says Neshek, who lived with his wife and son in an apartment right next to Busch Stadium during the 2014 season. "Every day I knew I was going to come home and see the little guy laughing." Stephanee agrees. "The game wasn't as stressful for Pat because he was in such a better place at home," she says. "Hoyt was his good-luck charm."

The house is a collection of collections, starting with the jerseys. Hanging above the staircase next to the kitchen, all the way from Park Center High to St. Louis and everywhere in between. At some point, an Astros jersey will join the exhibit: During the offseason, Neshek, one of the most coveted pitchers on the free-agent market after helping the Cardinals get to the NLCS last year, signs a guaranteed two-year, $12.5 million contract with Houston. The second year alone will net him $6.5 million, which is $5.5 million more than he's ever earned in a season. The deal is paying off for both sides: The surprising Astros lead the AL West, and Neshek leads the team with 29 appearances and is tied for the most holds in the majors, with 18. He doesn't issue his first walk until June 7, in his 25th game of the year.

In the winter, before he reports to the Astros for spring training, there's a new card collection too, in the house, just off the front of the kitchen, in the dining room. Not baseball cards; holiday cards. They dangle from the archway that connects the two rooms, facing the front door and greeting all who enter. There's a card from Eric Sogard, the A's infielder who was Neshek's roommate out West. There's one from outfielder Coco Crisp, another close friend from the Oakland days. Both cards feature smiling, Rockwellian photos of the players with their families.

Then there are the dachshunds. Four of them now -- including a white one named Kirby, a blond one named Juicy, a black one named Lulu who generally does not like people but makes a special exception for Sogard. Four days before New Year's Eve, the dogs scamper in and out of the dining room as Yuletide music fills the space. A squealing towheaded child, blue-eyed and pink-cheeked, cruises around a 15-foot evergreen in an exersaucer. Nine months old and already 27 pounds, Hoyt looks like the Gerber baby, supersized. "We're so thrilled to have him," says Pat, seated at the dining room table with Stephanee. "But whenever I look at him, I can't help but think how cool it'd be if his older brother were here."

He glances toward the front door and smiles. Out on the front porch, the fourth wiener dog -- an oversized inflatable one dressed in a red jacket and matching red Santa cap -- sends a clear message to the neighborhood: After two years absent from the Neshek household, Christmas has returned.