DETROIT – Pat Neshek gave his little boy a baseball name because this was the game that had sustained him for the 32 years of his life. And Gehrig seemed perfect because what could be more wholesome and strong and dignified than Gehrig? When Pat asked his wife Stephanee if they could have a son named for a first baseman her answer was simple.
Of course, she told him.
And now with Gehrig John Neshek gone just a day after birth – his death as public and heartbreaking and hard to explain as his namesake's – the boy's father had one last thing to do in the fog of his worst week. The Oakland Athletics reliever would pitch in a playoff game.
Neshek made the slow walk across the Comerica Park field in the seventh inning of Saturday's Game 1 of the American League Division Series. A TV cameraman trailed behind. Neshek ascended the mound and ran his fingers across the black circular patch on the sleeve of his jersey with the letters "GJN" stitched in white. Then he faced baseball again.
The record will show Neshek made Saturday night look simple. He stifled a Detroit Tigers rally with a ground ball and a strikeout. He got two critical outs that kept Oakland close in a game it would eventually lose. But what the record will not show are the tears that almost trickled from his eyes or the deep, anguished breaths he took as he stood on the field or the way he tapped his chest with his hand.
"Yesterday I said, 'You get on the field and you don't think too much about anything else.' But tonight I was thinking about it," he said.
Neshek was standing before his locker in the A's clubhouse after the game. He wore an untucked button-up shirt. His voice caught. Then he smiled slightly.
"I know it sounds so clichéd but I felt I had someone looking down," he continued.
Just three days before, he was home watching the A's on the afternoon following his son's birth when the call came from the hospital saying the seemingly healthy boy had stopped breathing. At first he couldn't think of returning to baseball and the playoffs. He and his wife sat in their Florida home, surrounded by their parents, tormented for two days. The walls seemed to collapse on them. Each hour was worse than the one before. He didn't think he could handle a third day. He had to leave. Stephanee agreed.
So on Friday Pat and Stephanee flew to Detroit along with her parents. While in the car, an A's official called and said the team was trying to get approval from the league to put the patch with Gehrig's initials on the sleeves of every player. Did Pat mind if they did this?
"I broke down," Pat said.
His wife, he said, had a wish for their son. She wanted her husband to find a way to stay in the game so Gehrig would be able to see his father pitch and understand what it meant. This has been the toughest on her, he said. She was the one who stayed back in Florida when Pat didn't make the Baltimore Orioles in April and had to pitch for half the year for Baltimore's Triple A team in Norfolk, Va. She prepared their house for a child as Pat was traded to Oakland and moved all the way across the country.
He knows she sacrificed. He knows she went through so much to get their world ready for their expanding family. Then, in what should have been their happiest time, she was instead flying to Michigan to sit in the cold stands on a frigid night to watch her husband pitch while he tried not to cry.
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"Go get 'em," A's manager Bob Melvin said to Pat, which is pretty much what Melvin always says when he gives a relief pitcher the ball in the middle of an inning.
Later, Pat didn't really have much of a memory of how he threw his pitches. In his mind he saw the little boy he was sure was watching him pitch. When he unleashed a slider for a strike it was the best slider he threw all year. This made him smile.
Then, outs recorded, Oakland's hopes preserved, he ran off the mound toward the dugout. He tapped his heart. Several players embraced him. Then he pulled on a sweatshirt, tugged on its hood and stared at the field.
Soon it would be time to go inside, shower, dress, leave the clubhouse and find his wife. In a hallway outside, the families of the other A's players waited. Small children ran through the corridor. A baby stroller was parked against the wall.
Pat Neshek would have to walk past them all as he looked for his wife on the night when all he could think about was the boy named for baseball.
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