By Greg Bates
Scroll through Pat Neshek’s Twitter page and it is quickly apparent how card collecting is an important part of his life.
When the Philadelphia Phillies’ relief pitcher isn’t on the mound, he’s likely tearing through stacks of packs looking for a hit, monitoring eBay or auction houses for vintage cards or signing memorabilia mailed to him by his fans.
It’s safe to say Neshek is the top card and memorabilia collector in all of Major League Baseball.
“I really love interacting with a lot of the fans,” said Neshek, whose Twitter handle is @PatNeshek. “No. 1, they’re out there getting me their autographs. They’re really good traders – I can help them with their collection. They can help me with mine. And, it’s just cool to show off what you hit, too.”
Neshek has been a journeyman during his 12-year MLB career. He’s played for seven different MLB clubs and nearly 10 minor league teams. Throughout his career, the 37-year-old has amassed an impressive resumé of autographs through all his stops. He figures he has around 50,000 signed baseball cards.
“That’s like my retirement thing whenever that day comes, just have to input those into a spreadsheet and know what I have,” Neshek said.
Neshek isn’t afraid to track down autographs of current MLB players. As a reliever, he has plenty of time prior to games to acquire signatures from players from other teams. Getting in-person autographs is Neshek’s best method. He finds it increasingly harder these days to get autographs from players.
“A lot of guys just don’t like to sign,” Neshek said.
One of Neshek’s favorite things to do within the hobby is build complete Topps sets and then get all the cards autographed. Neshek has been working on 1970 Topps and is 44 cards away from finishing off the 720-card autographed set.
“Now I’m down to guys that are deceased and are just impossible,” Neshek said. “It’s like (Roberto) Clemente or a couple guys died that year that the set was produced.”
Recently, Neshek built Topps sets from 2013-16 and is about 40 cards shy from having each set completely autographed.
“It’s pretty fun to do, but it’s a real process,” said Neshek, who is a two-time All-Star.
Neshek feels as though some of the sets are going to be pretty rare down the line because guys don’t want to sign. When Neshek can’t acquire in-person autographs – especially from players in the 1980s – he’ll resort to the fan method.
“In the winter, I’ll use a different name and send out mail and get autographs back from a lot of the players,” Neshek said. “It’s pretty cool. I’m on sportcollectors.net – they have all the addresses, who’s signing lately. So, you just throw a stamp on and you get your card back. I did that as a kid as well and it was a lot of fun.”
If Neshek doesn’t know the player, he’ll use his regular name when mailing out requests. However, if Neshek knows a current player, he’ll use his pen name.
“It’s funny, I get a lot of stuff back and those people don’t even know,” Neshek joked.
Neshek’s collecting habits are traced back to his days as a kid growing up in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. Since he was born in 1980, Neshek was a product of collecting during the oversaturated days of card releases – collecting mainly from 1987-92.
“That’s what kind of got the itch going,” Neshek said.
Neshek’s dad would bribe him and his brother by saying if they went to church, they could stop by their local card shop on the way home. Shinders, a chain bookstore and card shop, was Neshek’s go-to location in Crystal, Minnesota. His dad would also add incentives such as: “‘Mow the lawn and we’ll go to Shinders.’”
Neshek would go to Shinders and sort through the commons boxes to see if he could find any rookie cards.
“My dad really liked the vintage stuff back then, but we didn’t really buy any of that,” Neshek said. “That’s what we should have been buying.”
Neshek recalls some of the first boxes he ever purchased were 1985 Topps and Fleer. He had a newspaper route as a kid and bought a case of ’87 Topps – boxes were about $40 each back then.
“We’d always try to get the Kirby Puckett rookie in the ’85 Topps,” Neshek said. “The ’87 had like (Barry) Bonds and all that stuff. The Holy Grail, I think I had like a (Jose) Canseco rookie. I thought that was the coolest thing ever. It was the Donruss ’86 Rated Rookie – that was one of my favorite cards.”
Neshek was a big Puckett collector. The Minnesota Twins star actually lived only about a half mile down the road from Neshek’s family for about 10 years at Edinburgh USA Golf Course.
“We would go there for Halloween and his wife would hand out the full-sized candy bars,” Neshek said. “That was pretty cool.”
Neshek didn’t keep much of his card collection – just a few binders of the “cooler stuff” – from when he was younger. But cards during his early years certainly made an impression on his life.
“The thing I’ve always liked about collecting is you get the back of the card, you get to learn a lot about the game,” Neshek said. “You learn names, you know what teams guys play on. It’s helped me in my career too when I get some of these coaches I’ll know all about them, I’ll remember their cards. I’ll say, ‘Hey, you were on the Pirates this year. You were on the Phillies.’ They’re kind of surprised because I wasn’t even born yet for some of these guys. It really helps me understand the game.”
Neshek stopped collecting in 1992 when he entered junior high school. It wasn’t until college when Neshek got into autograph hunting. He had a roommate at Butler University who enjoyed hitting hotels to acquire autographs of basketball and football players when they were in town.
“As I got older, I really got into going out and getting autographs at a lot of the minor league parks,” Neshek said. “So, I’d buy a lot of the common cards and stalk the guys at AAA and get them signed.”
The minor league players were extremely accessible at that time. Neshek started to build his autograph collection.
“That got my juices flowing and I wanted to collect cards,” Neshek said. “So, I bought a couple boxes of Bowman. I think that was the year (Albert) Pujols was a rookie, so I didn’t really even know his card was valuable. I think Best had a good product. Just Minors had a good product.”
Neshek was a sixth-round pick of his hometown Twins in 2002. Two years later, he started a website to chronicle his journey in the minor leagues. He posted on the site that if anyone wanted his autograph they should send an autograph of any other player. Neshek also used a message board to trade game-used items and also received gear from his teammates to trade.
“I amassed a pretty good collection in the minors,” Neshek said. “And then of course I got to the majors, and this was still before Twitter, so it was kind of a cool thing to interact with the fans.”
When Neshek cracked the majors in 2006 with the Twins, he really made a push with his autograph collection.
In 2009, Neshek had a setback in his career, having to undergo Tommy John surgery. Sitting around for one year, Neshek realized how much memorabilia he had: closets full of balls, bats, jerseys and signed photos.
Neshek went on eBay and sold a lot of items he didn’t want. He also gave his bobbleheads and photos to one of his brothers.
“I wanted to consolidate and go into a couple different things that I really wanted to collect,” Neshek said. “I liked doing the signed Topps cards and then I learned about this new thing, PSA was grading these cards. I thought it was really neat. What put me over the top was their set registry where you actually track just how rare some of these old cards are, how many are out there. That put a cool value on it.”
Early on, Neshek’s collecting was geared toward an investment. He knew the commodity was going to go up because of the scarcity of the items. That got him interested in vintage cards.
Besides his quest to build Topps sets that have all the cards autographed by the players, one of Neshek’s most impressive sets is 1970 Topps. According to PSA’s set registry – it’s registered under “Neshek Collection” – it’s the top-ranked 1970 Topps set in the world.
“It grades to about a 9.7,” Neshek said. “I still need about 30 percent in a 10, but I have 70 percent done in a 10, which has been a 10-year process. I started about 2008, 2009, working on that, buying some of these gem mint cards and submitted stuff. That far and away is my best set.”
Neshek is starting to hit a point where it’s tougher and tougher to track down gem mint 10 cards from that set. Some of the players don’t have a single 10 registered with PSA. The gray borders on the cards make them extra sensitive and extremely hard to acquire gem mint status.
“You’re just waiting for the day when some of those pop up,” Neshek said. “That’s one of my favorite pieces I work on. I’ll check eBay every day and a lot of the auction houses and see what pops up. It’s kind of slow now. It’s about five to 15 cards a year now I add because I don’t really need too many and they’re just not popping up.”
Neshek also has a completed 1968 Topps set in PSA 8. He started working on that when he could buy common cards for $5 each and then just added the stars along the way. He recalled being in Oakland in 2013 and picking up a Nolan Ryan PSA 8 for $800. Three years later, the rookie card of the legendary right-handed pitcher topped out at $10,000.
Neshek’s 1910 Philadelphia Caramel E96 30-card set is also one of the finest in the world.
The next big task for Neshek is completing a 1951 Bowman set almost entirely in PSA 8. He started off building a PSA 6 set but has upgraded.
Neshek is also into Garbage Pail Kids – reliving his childhood again. He built Series 2, 3 and 4 sets of gem mint 10 and sent them in raw to PSA for grading. He’s almost completed a Series 5 set, too.
Along with sets, Neshek will pick up various single cards of his favorite players. He has a few Babe Ruths, Lou Gehrigs and a couple Ty Cobb T206 red backs.
One of Neshek’s three kids is named Hoyt after Hoyt Wilhelm, so Neshek buys as many Wilhelm rookies in PSA 8 as he can.
With Puckett being his childhood idol, he collects the Twins great, including five 1984 Fleer Updates. He also has a 1989 Fleer Billy Ripken error on the knob of his bat.
Neshek really loves the 1952 Topps Eddie Mathews card.
“Just because it’s the last card in that set, it’s kind of a condition card,” Neshek said. “I don’t think it gets enough respect. I think that’s going to be a card that really booms.”
Of course, Neshek’s favorite cards to collect are the ones of himself.
“I’ll try to track down all the printing plates, all the platinums, the 1/1s,” Neshek said. “It’s a tough business. A lot of people know I collect, so they’ll just put a ridiculous price on there. I put my limits down, but for the most part people have been really good.”
Recently, a fan traded Neshek some printed plates of himself for tickets to a Phillies game. Another collector wanted a Jake Arietta autograph in exchange for Neshek printing plates, so Neshek’s teammate Arietta helped him out.
Neshek has a good master collection of most of his cards. He owns a couple complete printing plate sets and a couple rainbow sets.
“I’ve been going hard trying to get my cards since I was a rookie,” Neshek said. “There’s not too much out there that I haven’t tried to get.”
Neshek loves interacting with fellow MLB players who like to collect. There are a number of them in the league, but Neshek calls them “closet collectors.”
“I would say most people are into it, they just don’t know how to go about it,” Neshek said. “It’s kind of scary, too, with all the fakes that are out there. So, you really need to trust companies like Beckett or PSA to make sure you’re not buying some garbage.”
Neshek is always trying to get his teammates involved in collecting cards. Earlier this year, he accompanied fellow pitchers Mark Leiter Jr. and Nick Pivetta to the MLB Players Association office in New York where the guys were able to open some product provided by Topps. The young players learned about a whole different way of collecting cards these days with redemptions, autographs, relics and packs that can go for over $200.
While opening packs in New York on April 2 of this year – after the Phillies’ game vs. the Mets was postponed due to snow – Neshek hit the jackpot. He pulled a Topps Heritage 01/69 autograph card of Los Angeles Angels rookie Shohei Ohtani. The Japanese phenom was a hot commodity early in the year before going down with an injury.
The abundance of young stars in Major League Baseball has really helped out collecting. Neshek loves to see all the excitement within the sport.
“It’s good to see the hobby kind of come back,” Neshek said. “It was kind of dead five years ago. And I think Aaron Judge really got that going last year and the Ohtani craze kind of helped that a lot, too. It’s good to see. It was kind of struggling there for a few years.”
But with players like Neshek getting their collecting fix, the hobby could be in good shape for years to come.
Greg Bates is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.