Neshek's accessibility makes him fan favorite

Pat Neshek's pants were for sale this week.

They were autographed and everything, the signature right there on the waistband, proof they'd been used in his first career spring training game. Though no one hazarded a bid, the $124.99 price tag too hefty, the pants are sure to surface at auction again alongside dozens of other items with Neshek's signature on it.

It is the product of an unlikely tale: How a 27-year-old relief pitcher became the most accessible player in Major League Baseball. Between his vow to autograph every baseball card sent to him and his communications with fans through a blog that just celebrated its fourth birthday, Neshek keeps in better touch with his fans than anyone, and they, in turn, spread the word.

By, uh, selling the pants that he traded the auctioneer for some baseball cards.

"It's kind of neat to see somebody wants something of mine," Neshek said. "I'm a middle reliever. The only time I'm in the paper is when I blow a game. So, hey, I'll take being on eBay."

Actually, Neshek's name does extend a bit beyond the Internet. Last season, he was one of baseball's best setup men, particularly in the first half when he gave up just 18 hits in 42 1/3 innings and posted a 1.70 ERA. He throws sidearm, the product of an injury in high school that left him with a slug-sized lump in his right forearm, and the speed on his fastball – up to 94 mph – makes him unique among an already distinctive breed.

In a backward way, Neshek's delivery – and the Twins' skepticism about it – helped start the blog. Though he was a sixth-round pick, Neshek was pushed slowly by the Twins, who wanted to ensure his numbers weren't flukes due to his fooling younger hitters from the sidearm angle. Two years into his career, still in Class A, Neshek saw a message board where a fan complained about not receiving an autograph. Neshek posted asking for the fan's address. Ten more fans emailed asking for an autograph.

"And I was like, 'Wow, people want to hear this about some (crappy) reliever,' " Neshek said. "So I asked them if I should start a site. I didn't expect much. I wanted to talk about autographs."

Neshek had collected baseball cards as a kid in suburban Minneapolis, the 1985 Topps Kirby Puckett his Holy Grail. As he grew up, baseball players became less inclined to sign balls and cards, and he promised not to be one of those.

So he started On the Road with Pat Neshek, which chronicled his rise to Double-A, the next year he spent there, his domination at Triple-A and, finally, his big-league debut July 7, 2006.

Eventually, more than 5,000 people registered for Neshek's message board, and he cut off new members around the All-Star game last season, when thousands poured in trying to vote for him as the American League's 32nd player. He lost to Hideki Okajima, who had a country (Japan) and a nation (Red Sox) behind him.

"I'd rather have a small community," Neshek said.

That way, he can keep at least some of it personal. When Neshek arrives at the Metrodome, a box with hundreds of envelopes greet him, from kids who just want to hear from a big leaguer and adults who want to turn a quick profit online. Those who follow Neshek's request – send a self-addressed stamped envelope! – get their cards back about three days later.

"The website, the signing," Neshek said. "It's killer."

His posts have become less frequent, the rigors of keeping a job in the major leagues taking precedent. Neshek tries to make them better, everything from the hilarious (on a signed card commemorating Alex Rodriguez's 460th home run, surrendered by Neshek, he signed his name, followed by: "I should not have thrown that pitch") to the subversive (he's getting ready to post video of him taking a line shot off his jaw while in college at Butler – "Three different angles!" he says gleefully. "Their team was taking video, a news crew was there and some mom had one in the stands.")

Neshek even delves into the revelatory. He talked this offseason about becoming a vegan and why he chose to stop eating animal products. Now he packs an extra suitcase for the road with vegetarian burgers, hot dogs, granola, fruits, vegetables, a juicer and a blender to make his own smoothies.

"Two oranges, one banana – or two if you feel frisky – a handful of frozen strawberries, a tablespoon of spirulina powder, a little teaspoon of wheatgrass powder, a teaspoon of kelp powder and brown rice protein," he said. "I think that's it. Yep. That's it."

Little is off-limits for Neshek, and perhaps that helps him resonate so well. Like he said, he's just a middle reliever, and one with flaws. His ERA jumped to 2.94 by the end of last season, and fans emailed asking why. Neshek tried his best to explain.

"I made a couple bad pitches and got beat, balls got hit and dropped in and runs came in," he wrote. "My slider sucked and hung, when you hang the slider against MLB hitters you get beat."

The honesty was refreshing, as was Neshek's means of delivery. In fact, it wasn't just Twins fans following him. This spring, Angels reliever Darren O'Day, a sidearmer who made the team as a long shot, introduced himself to Neshek. He said that he reads Neshek's blog.

Neshek thanked him. The word is spreading. And maybe one of these days those pants will go for a lot more than $124.99.