Nesheks welcome this special Mother's Day
A tough holiday in '13 after death of son, reliever and wife celebrate new baby
It was a day marked by joy and anticipation for Stephanee Neshek, who, two years ago, hit the halfway mark of her pregnancy just before she celebrated Mother's Day for the first time.
Son Gehrig was to be born at the end of baseball season, which meant the second Sunday in May was now a holiday that felt personal. Stephanee's sister sent a Mother's Day card. Her mother-in-law brought over gifts and served as welcome company while husband, Pat, was away pitching for the Orioles' Triple-A affiliate.
Stephanee spent the day looking wide-eyed to the future.
One year later, the Nesheks trudged through the same holiday begging for it to pass.
Gehrig, born on Oct. 2, 2012, had unexpectedly died 23 hours later. The Nesheks were still struggling to move on when Mother's Day rolled around in 2013. Stephanee didn't have her baby boy to hold and wasn't yet again pregnant. The day just added to the hurt.
"I didn't even want to get out of bed," Stephanee recalled. "I went to the gym and tried to ignore the fact that it was a special day with any significance, as I did with all holidays that year.
"This year is much different."
This year, the Nesheks will celebrate Mother's Day with eight-week-old Hoyt Robert, and more importantly, reunite for the remainder of the baseball season. Stephanee has spent the week preparing to relocate to St. Louis, where the family of three will be together again beginning on Monday.
For Pat, who has watched his son double in size merely through photos and video chats, the day can't come soon enough.
"There will be a lot of joy," Pat said. "I'm so happy that we have a little guy to love and share stuff with. Stephanee has always wanted to be a good mom, and she gets that chance now."
It will be, however, a reunion that feels one year too late.
Devastation is the word Pat keeps coming back to as he sits in the Cardinals' dugout one late April afternoon reflecting on how quickly his and Stephanee's joy was overtaken by sadness in October 2012. Still champagne-soaked after celebrating the clinching of a playoff berth with his A's teammates on Oct. 1, he had jetted cross country to Melbourne, Fla., once he learned Stephanee had gone into labor. He arrived about 30 minutes before Gehrig John did.
There was no indication that anything was awry, which is why Pat left the hospital the next afternoon to head home and see if his teammates could do one better than the American League Wild Card. He watched the Rangers race out to the early lead and the A's claw back in front. A division title was at stake.
Back at the hospital, Stephanee was visiting with a friend, cradling Gehrig in her arms when he fell asleep. He turned pale, at which time Stephanee rushed him out to the nurses' station. Pat took a phone call and began the 30-minute drive to the hospital. He didn't get an update while en route, something he took to be an indication of the worst.
Those fears would soon be confirmed.
"It was a total nightmare completely unexpected with no explanation at the time," Stephanee said. "We suddenly lost our perfect 40-week, eight-pound, five-ounce perfect little son in the blink of an eye. I was filling out his Social Security and birth certificate forms one minute, and two hours later signing a paper for consent to an autopsy."
"We got back to the house and sat there and cried for a full 24 hours," Pat said. "And then we didn't really know how to go on. It was just sadness, pure sadness, that whole day. I didn't want to talk to anybody."
It would take months before the Nesheks would begin to get their answers, which, Pat said, eventually identified that the administering of the wrong antibiotic was paramount in Gehrig's sudden death.
Long before that news came, the Nesheks had to figure out how to begin to move forward. Initially, Pat didn't believe baseball would be a part of that healing. He had his agent reach out to the A's to let them know he wouldn't be returning for the postseason, but had a change of heart when he and Stephanee began to feel themselves suffocated by their home.
Oakland general manager Billy Beane had let Pat know right away that a playoff roster spot would be his if he wanted to rejoin the club, which had captured the AL West crown. Stephanee agreed that it was time to go.
"We got there and being able to see her smile for a little bit was good," Pat said. "It's not that we didn't want to remember, but we were able to think about something else, even if for just 10 minutes. That was better than being at home."
Pat appeared just once, pitching two-thirds of a scoreless inning in Game 1 of the best-of-five AL Division Series against the Tigers.
"It almost felt like there was a power out there greater than you on the field," said Pat, whose teammates all wore uniform patches with his son's initials during the series.
Detroit ended up advancing to the AL Championship Series.
"Getting away and going back to a game we loved with people who supported us was healing at the time and the perfect distraction," Stephanee said. "I remember crying when the A's lost, not because the season was over, but because I knew I had to go back home and face reality."
Gehrig's death was, without question, the hardest thing that Pat and Stephanee had endured since getting married after the 2006 season, one in which Pat had made his Major League debut. The two had met two years earlier through a fortuitous Google search by Stephanee.
She, a former collegiate softball player, and some friends had attended a game in Tampa between the Twins and Devil Rays, and the group had befriended the Twins' longtime clubhouse manager, Wayne Hattaway. Wanting to learn more about him, the girls took to the Internet.
In their search, they stumbled upon a website that Neshek had started on which he journaled about life in the Minors and his growing baseball card and autograph collection. He had recently written about Hattaway on the site.
"We were actually laughing at it because he had all sorts of funny pictures and stories," Stephanee recalled. "I thought it was pretty cool, and he seemed like an interesting guy."
She sent him an e-mail, to which he later responded. E-mails evolved into conversations through AOL Instant Messenger until later that summer they met when Pat was demoted to the Twins' Class A affiliate in Fort Myers, Fla.
They quickly found that they had much in common. Stephanee understood the lifestyle of a professional athlete, and Pat appreciated how she pushed him. During the offseason, she would be his partner during games of catch. Stephanee also nudged Pat to get into the gym more often.
"It helped me," Pat acknowledged. "It wasn't something I had ever really done with a lot of dedication until that point."
Their love story followed Pat through four seasons in Minnesota, a year recovering from Tommy John surgery, a stop in San Diego, a stint in the Orioles' organization and a trade to Oakland. None of it, however, could prepare the couple for the challenges they'd face after that 2012 postseason.
The grieving took different forms. Pat, wired as a reliever, wanted to forget and move on. Stephanee couldn't. They endured silly fights and guilt and flashbacks when they would see other parents playing with their kids. Counseling helped, but healing has taken time.
"It's still a struggle," Stephanee said. "There are good days and bad days. You have to find a new normal and learn to live life with a piece of yourself missing. We don't talk about Gehrig or our grief a whole lot. If you are having a good day and can get your mind off it for a brief period of time, you don't want anyone to bring it up and take you back to that dark place. But then there are times when I would be thinking about him and wondering how everyone is going about their lives, laughing and acting like nothing happened.
"It's a no-win situation. My world as I knew it stopped that day, but the real world kept moving."
Spring brought baseball and some renewed hope for the Nesheks, who, around the start of the 2013 season, decided that they would try to have another child. Hoyt would be born less than a year later, and after being monitored several days for breathing issues, was able to come home with the Nesheks during Spring Training.
Days later, Pat learned he would break camp with the Cardinals.
Stephanee stayed behind to care for Hoyt through those early weeks. She and Hoyt have used Skype daily to talk to Pat, who is also quick to show off pictures of his growing son on his cell phone. He's overjoyed that on Monday, he'll get to hold him.
It's the little things that carry big significance to the Nesheks as they move forward. Each day is precious, every moment captured. Mother's Day will be one, trumped a day later when the family is together again.
"I just had faith it would work out this time, [and] the risk to me [of having another child] was well worth the reward," Stephanee said. "I knew nothing could ever replace Gehrig, but I wanted to fulfill my dream of being a mom and having a family. The house was so quiet and empty that offseason after Gehrig died; it was very hard. It made us think about how different our lives should be and ask ourselves every day what Gehrig would be doing. I wanted a chance to share our love with another child."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.