CLEARWATER, Fla. - The two college baseball players waited most nights outside the gates of the minor-league ballpark, hoping to score a signature from one of the future big leaguers who rolled through town.
The autograph hounds armed themselves with baseballs and trading cards. Pat Neshek - a Phillies pitcher with a quirky hobby and a quirkier pitching motion - and his college roommate, Paul Beck, were obsessed with autographs. They would track athletes across the Midwest, camping out at stadiums and hotel lobbies. It was the foundation of an autograph collection that continues to grow.
Their ballpark watch one night was long enough that it outlasted the minor-league team's bus, which returned to the hotel without some of the team's players. The remaining players emerged from the clubhouse and noticed they were without a ride.
"My buddy said, 'Do you guys need a ride?' " Neshek said. "They said yeah. So they hopped in and we gave them a stack of cards. They were signing the whole time."
Neshek continued to rack up autographs after he left Butler University and began his climb up the baseball ladder. Each stop was a chance to add more. The hobby, Neshek said, is his release. His collection includes a baseball signed by Babe Ruth; war plans signed by Napoleon Bonaparte; autographs of Buzz Aldrin, Buddy Holly, and Jimi Hendrix; and a complete set of signed 1985 Topps baseball cards.
The 1985 set, all 792 cards, includes signatures from Phillies pitching coach Bob McClure, bench coach Larry Bowa, and third-base coach Juan Samuel. Mike Schmidt and Larry Andersen — both guest instructors this spring — are there, too. Neshek scoured eBay, tracked down retired players, and sent letters to their homes. He received contributions from fans who mailed Neshek cards from their collection in exchange for an autograph of his.
Neshek had to find a signed card from a pitcher who returned to Central America as a revolutionary and another pitcher who was working as a cook at a small Louisiana college. Fred Lynn signed Neshek's card and wrote back that he did so because he "loved facing sinkerballers." The search ended with a signed card from Phillies pitcher John Denny, purchased on eBay for $50. It took two years to finish.
"It was a slow process," Neshek said.
Neshek is trying to finish signed sets of Topps cards from the last four seasons. Each set is about 150 cards away from completion. And most of the missing cards are players in the National League East, a division of teams Neshek did not play against when he was with the Astros. The November trade that sent him to the Phillies will be a boost to his collection. Neshek brought his cards to spring training and will send them during the season to opposing clubhouses, hoping to receive them back signed.
"A big thing for me was when I had Tommy John surgery in 2008," Neshek said. "I had a slow time coming back and kind of looked at things and thought, 'This could be over. I wish I would've enjoyed it a lot more.' I want to enjoy it and not have any hesitation when I look back. I want to have something to remember from my playing days."
"I can do that really well, but I think I offer a lot more," Neshek said. "When I was with St. Louis, a lot of people saw what I can do. Either way, I'm at the age right now that I'm just going to go out and compete. I think the roles are dictated by how you're pitching. If you're pitching good, you're going to have that good job. If you're not, you're going to be where you are. I think there's a lot of opportunity here. A lot more than I had in Houston."
Neshek matches an effective changeup — the slowest in baseball last season — with a sidearm delivery that makes him look as if he is skipping rocks into a pond. Neshek lowers his body, stretches his arm out by his waist, and lets the pitches fly. The unusual delivery keeps hitters off balance. It's a different look. And the deception adds life to his low-90s fastball.
Neshek's funky delivery started when he was hit by a pitch, thrown by a former Phillies farmhand, in his final high school game. The injury caused Neshek to have trouble gripping a baseball that summer, but he threw without pain if he lowered his arm.
"I just kind of ran with it," Neshek said. "My college coach was like, 'This is really weird. But it works.' It's different. That's kind of what the big leagues is. You don't want all of your pitchers throwing like that. That's the main reason why I've had a job for so many years."
The minor-league players finished signing Neshek's baseball cards and left the backseat for a downtown Indianapolis restaurant, just a 10-minute drive from the ballpark. And years later, their paths crossed. Neshek reached the majors in 2006 with the Twins and one of his teammates was Jason Tyner, one of those who had missed the team's bus that night.
"I said, 'Do you remember taking a ride from these guys at triple A and them having you sign autographs?'" Neshek said. "He goes, 'Actually, I do remember that. Wait. That was you?' He couldn't believe it.