(BaseballStL) — Having the right number can mean a lot to a professional baseball player. Whether it’s sentiment, superstition or just familiarity, the digits on the back of the duds seem to matter.
So when John Lackey joined the Cardinals, a situation developed over number 41.
Lackey had worn 41 his entire career (briefly taking 40 in 2010 for part of a season in Boston), the inverse of his childhood number 14. The problem was, it belonged to All Star Pat Neshek.
“When the trade happened we were in San Diego,” Neshek said. “We got on the plane and Holliday kind of brokered the deal. He said, ‘he doesn’t really want to give it up, but he wouldn’t mind hearing offers.’”
Negotiations were on.
“A watch is kind of traditional,” Lackey said. “It’s what guys kind of do, so that’s what I offered up first.”
The 35-year-old opened with a Breitling, but Neshek isn’t a watch guy. He’s memorabilia collector, taking pride in a vast and varied collection of historic items, many of them baseball related.
“I kind of tried to feel some of the guys out. They said he was a really cool guy and he might be into doing like a pretty nice watch,” Neshek laughed. “I figured if it was a watch I could probably talk him into a baseball card or something cool like that.”
To decide, Neshek contacted his friend and head authenticator at Professional Sports Authenticators in California. Knowing the price of the watch, the 37-year-old asked what would be the piece to go after.
“He said, ‘oh definitely a Babe Ruth ball.’”
Neshek began searching and once he found one he liked, sent it along to Lackey for approval.
“That’s what he really wanted so that’s what we went with,” Lackey said. “I appreciate him giving up that number while having such a great year. So I wanted to do something cool for him for sure.”
The ball is from 1926, and signed with Babe in quotation marks; something the historic slugger only did early in his career.
“It’s something I always wanted. It’s the best autograph I have in my collection,” Neshek smiled. “Man, what a gift.”
He took the ball out and offered to let other Cardinals hold it in the clubhouse, much to the chagrin of his teammates. Lackey wouldn’t discuss the price, but a Bambino-signed ball can easily climb north of $20,000.
Neshek is a history buff and memorabilia junkie. He maintains a site where he offers to swap out his own signed baseball card in exchange for any signed card sent in by a fan. He also maintains a forum dedicated to collecting cards, getting autographs and finding collectibles.
Even with Neshek's love of baseball history, the Sultan of Swat takes a back seat to his most prized signature.
“Napoleon Bonaparte,” he said with a proud smile. “I got it on some war letters. Just kind of some battle plans from one of his wars, bringing in supplies.”
Ruth’s signature will have fine company in Neshek’s keeping, sitting side-by-side with the likes of the Little General and Jimi Hendrix. In fact, there only seemed to be one person unhappy with the whole arrangement. Neshek’s mom.
“She shunned me for giving up my number,” he said, shaking his head. “She’s not happy but I’ve gotten a lot of strikeouts since with number 37 and things have been going pretty well so it was a great trade.”
Lackey’s generosity had a few other players chirping, with eyes on their own jerseys. He said Lance Lynn piped up, hoping to get the first deal.
”Lynn was like, ‘you need 31? I need a new watch,’” he said.
For some players, though, seniority steamrolls any interesting trades. A.J. Pierzynski, given number 35 when he came to St. Louis, wanted to switch back to the number 12 he wore in his Chicago days.
Greg Garcia held the number, up from Memphis in to fill in behind Kolten Wong. Unfortunately for Garcia, he had no chips to bargain with.
“It was pretty funny last night he was asking Garcia. He said, ‘you know, how many days do you have up here?’ and Garcia said, ‘I think I have 12,’” Neshek said. “[A.J.] goes, ‘Ok, when a guy has more years than you have days, you just give him the number. Give me your number.’”
Pierzynski was wearing number 12 Wednesday against the Reds, but he reportedly didn’t leave Garcia empty-handed.
“He took care of me,” Garcia said. “Well.”
Mike Matheny said he never really cared what number he wore when he played. As a manger, he likely won’t be switching out number 22, since it is now such an integral part of his foundation. (Catch 22 Foundation).
Even though he didn’t have any attachment to his numerals, he still received a gift when he had to surrender them in 2000.
“Will Clark came over here and I didn’t expect anything,” he said. “I got a nice compound bow out of the deal but there wasn’t any negotiation.”
The manager has since passed the bow onto his sons, but plans to keep it as a reminder.